So, if Neal Stephenson, J.G. Ballard, Charlie Stross, and Mervyn Peake had collaborated on a movie about the near future of the global economy, perhaps we’d have something about Chinese property developers trying to create the perfectly blank fascimile of a mid-century European suburb in the outskirts of Shanghai, not too far from Ballard’s old concentration camp at the Lunghua airfield, when a massive financial crisis erupts across the Internet. After the Party shuts off access to the major banks, the developers turn to high yield paper traded in Hong Kong, until rates spike and even Hong Kong brokers won’t touch it no more. But plungers plunge, it’s what they do. Shark gotta swim. The music’s playing and while it’s playing, we’re dancing, as someone said.
That’s when they notice the people from Wenzhou, who have a deeply dodgy but robust store-credit network going back to the days when any private business at all was illegal and who knows, maybe even further, back to the chaos of the Civil Wars. They’re in all kinds of business so long as it’s shady and they look out for each other, and they lend money. You wouldn’t be that far wrong if you thought you’d seen them in the movies before, just not as Chinese. More pasta, less mantou. So they roll over the loans.
But this is all can-kicking; the ballroom days are over. Nothing goes quite like a bubble. And pretty soon the Wenzhou guys are in trouble themselves. Colourful identities in shoe-biz are hopping out of tall buildings and pizza-ing the sidewalk. And here’s the kicker. You kick loans out the front door, you gotta turn them over out the back. The deal is the same for Citigroup and dodgy bookies. So they set up “trusts” with big names and float them in Hong Kong…and the Royal Bank of Scotland is a big investor.
No. No. That’s not the kicker. The kicker is this – the big deal, the hacienda if it hadn’t been a nightclub, the daddy, is a whole suburb designed by one Albert Speer.
I’m making none of this up. It’s not old man Speer, of course – it’s his son, also an architect like his grandad and his great-grandad, who was commissioned to build a German town in Shanghai’s globo-shed airport’n'datacentre belt. Trouble, he took that mean they wanted a town like a real German town, all post-war and either Christian or Social Democratic and square and energy efficient. They wanted Rothenburg ob der Tauber, or at least a lot of flickwerk fachwerk. Old Speer would have wanted something different – waiting for the end, he imagined he’d rebuild Germany in aluminium prefabs built by the idled Junkers aircraft industry, very Bucky Fuller, and even tapped up some of his staff to join him in his new practice.
About the Chinese property bubble and the increasing role of the mob, here’s Pat Chovanec. You’ll observe he’s getting a wee taste of the wumaodang in comments.
Here’s China Daily on sweatshop shoemaker-loansharks dropping out of skyscrapers. Wenzhou sounds like a mashup of Sicily and Leicester. With Chinese people. (Here, take one of these tabs, it’ll make sense.)
Finally, all that stuff about weird buildings and Albert Speer? I wasn’t kidding. Der Spiegel, auf deutsch. You bet.