City of Fog: Passing the Flower
– The Chinese Resource Pyramid Scheme behind the Three Gorges Dam
A story about finding gold: a man bought a flock of ducks to raise tuition money for his two sons. One summer, the boys were tending the ducks by the pond and saw something gold shimmering under the water. They couldn’t swim so they set out to find their father. The father was busy playing cards, and he ignored the boys. The older son, out of patience, returned to the pond. The younger son appraised the situation, and had an idea. He went to his father and said, “My brother broke his leg”. His father ran frightened to the edge of the pond, and saw that his eldest son was fine. Angry, he slapped his younger son. The child, rubbing his sore face, said “Father, just look at the water!” The father looked, and saw something gold and shiny. He couldn’t reach it, so he drained the pond. When he picked up the object, he saw that it was a golden bowl of the type used by county magistrates in the Tang Dynasty, an extremely valuable object. He got a friend to sell it for him, and received over a million Yuan. When someone asked how he got so rich so quickly, he looked at the dried out pond, rubbed his son’s hair and said, “My son’s smarts, a lie with good intentions and a dried-up pond are what made me my fortune.”
Pyramid Scheme Stories
A friend of mine likes to say that when we can’t see the future, we should look to history.
China’s current economic situation bears some resemblance to the situation in Continental Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. At the time, Europe was almost completely controlled by powerful governments that appeared great, glorious and correct. It was a time of unprecedented prejudice against liberal economics. Intellectuals focused only on very narrow fields, and the people put no thought towards the outcomes of policies, a trend that was encouraged by the governments. The tools of the people were elevated to the point of total bias: labor economists only researched the effects of labor policies, and agricultural economists only researched ways of raising the prices of agricultural goods. They only thought about issues in terms of government pressure, without thinking about the effects on society. They were no longer economists, but explainers of the behavior of government departments. In this respect, there are many similarities between that situation and the situation now facing China. China’s current market-rescue policies can only extend the crisis, stretching it out over a longer period of time. The core of these market-rescue policies is to approve a wave of massive projects. During the period of the “ten fives” plan, China embarked on such massive projects as the “Qinghai-Tibet Railroad”, the “South-North Water Diversion Project”, the “West-East Natural Gas Pipeline” and the “West-East Electricity Transmission Project”. Recently, China has engaged in an expansion of investment on an unprecedented scale, starting or accelerating a series of key national-level projects, the most remarkable being a new set of four massive engineering projects on the hundred-billion Yuan scale, the “second West-East Gas Pipeline”, the “Beijing-Shanghai High-Speed Rail”, the “Nuclear Power Program” and the execution of the “South-North Water Diversion Project”. These projects are being touted as part of the market-rescue plan, but their results and their futures are unclear, as if cloaked in a dense layer of fog. Therefore, in describing these massive engineering projects that exceed the capacity for human imagination, we will use the term “fog city”. Now I will take a look at one massive project which has already entered the annals of history, the Three Gorges Dam project, looking at relationships up and downstream, and at what the project’s experience can tell us.
I had originally planned to return to Chongqing to shoot a series of photographs entitled Shadow, to show the aftereffects of that city’s rapid development. As a building rises higher, its shadow grows longer. My wish was to convey those things that reside in these shadows. I went back to Chongqing for a while, but the whole city, as well as the Three Gorges region and downstream Hubei Province, was cloaked in perpetual fog. Without sunlight there are no shadows. Fog has become the marker of the city’s existence, and within that fog, people are unable to make real distinctions, and this became my new motivation for shooting. I set out to capture this society in the fog, to explore how it came about and its symbolic meaning.
Made in China
China’s export-oriented manufacturing accounts for 43% of the nation’s GNP. This has allowed China to amass nearly 2 trillion USD in foreign currency reserves, the largest in the world. China has also purchased nearly 1 trillion dollars in US national debt. What lies behind this impressive achievement? The first factor is low cost. Chinese products, on average, are 1/3 to 1/5 the price of products from other nations. The second factor is the waste of resources, and then there is the excessive reliance on human capital. Today, America accounts for 25% of the global economy, while China accounts for 6% and the EU 33%, but China uses 30% of the world’s resources. That is to say, China bears the effects of the pollution created by using 30% of the world’s energy to produce only 6% of the global economy. China, with its large land mass and abundant materials, is short on copper and iron ore, most of which must be imported. Though we often see accidents happening with China’s coal extraction industry, China is short on coal too, which it also must import in massive quantities. Though China has become the world’s leading producer of steel and second largest producer of copper, its relative use of power and water for that production far exceed world averages.
To produce a ton of steel and a ton of copper, not only does China use more resources such as coal, water and electricity than the rest of the world, it also produces more pollution. According to Chinese steel and copper industry averages, it takes 20 kilowatt-hours of electricity to produce one kilogram of copper. With each kilowatt-hour requiring an average of 400 grams of coal, that’s 2 kilograms of coal for one kilogram of copper, and 600 kilograms of coal for one ton of steel. In addition, one ton of steel uses 15 tons of fresh water (this doesn’t count gray water, which is also used), while one ton of copper requires 25 tons of fresh water. Yet to be calculated at this point is the amount of pollution created by this resource-intensive production. Last year, China purchased one million tons of iron ore from Australia. That’s 77 kilograms for each Chinese person. To turn each of these big bags of brown rocks into Chinese-made products, Chinese people have to dig coal, produce energy, use water, ship, refine, cast, cut, mold, polish, assemble, adjust and package day in and day out. Unknowingly, we drink water polluted by the processing of this ore, breathe air with excessive levels of carbon pollution from its processing, eat eggs contaminated with Sudan Red, and eat grains and vegetables containing excess levels of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Thus, the courageous and hardworking Chinese people have turned ore into products to be shipped back to the West. At least now we can understand one of the sources of western greed. China’s low labor costs and lackadaisical pollution controls have made Chinese industrial products too cheap. Replacement products are much cheaper than the salaries for repairmen in developed countries, so they feel that repairs are not worth the cost anymore.
Resource Pyramid Schemes
We just spoke of Chinese manufacturing’s needs of and dependence on resources. Now I would like to talk about two other properties of resources. One is the political aspect, that is, when the control and development of resources becomes a tool for real political gain, economic targets take second place. This enters into people-oriented ideologies and furthers differences in ideas and values. The second property of these resources is their pyramid-scheme characteristic. When aspirations to become wealthy reach the level of religious faith, then a frenzy begins to amass wealth through reliance on resources and the sale of resources. The price paid for this aspiration, just like a pyramid scheme, cascades down from the top. Each tier pulls up benefits from, and tosses the garbage to, the tier below. No one cares about the resulting defeat of morals and pollution of the environment.
The Three Gorges hydropower station produces less than 2% of the nation’s electricity, but it affects 25% of China’s territory, reaching up to Chongqing, Sichuan and Guizhou, and down to Hunan and Hubei provinces. Is it worth it? Why do we need all that power? It’s because China is the factory of the world, made in China. It is for the high-speed GDP growth brought by energy-intensive, low value-added products. The results are endless mining accidents in the north and countless dams along the rivers of the south, ecological destruction. Fog is a kind of symbol; it comes from pollution of the environment and destruction of the ecosystem. They are the real embodiment of the effects of this pyramid scheme. For the Three Gorges Dam, there are many questions worth discussing. The first is the question of quality. When the reservoir is filled to the 175 meter level, it holds 39.3 billion cubic meters of water. With an annual flow of 4.5 trillion cubic meters of water, it can only be refreshed around ten times. Compared to the once rushing waters of the Yangtze River, it is a pool of dead water. Floating debris can be found all over the reservoir, so the cities along its banks have no choice but to spend increasing amounts to utilize water from the surrounding tributaries and mountains. The second question is about silt. Right now, 60% of the sediment in the river remains in the reservoir as the water flows through. Is the Three Gorges project destined to become the next Sanmenxia Reservoir? No worries, we still have 4 trillion Yuan in funding for western expansion. Can’t we just build more dams upstream along the Yangtze and Jinsha Rivers? The third question is about safety. First is the issue of earthquakes. Earthquakes tend to happen when reservoirs are first being filled, but they are usually not very strong. The Three Gorges Reservoir, however, is the largest hydropower station on earth. Does it have the potential to cause a larger earthquake than we have experienced in the past? There is also the issue of potential future wars. The Three Gorges project was designed and constructed according to our current level of technology. What about the future? In the future, militaries will surely be more technologically advanced than they are now. This unchanging structure will have to face the continuous development of military strike capabilities. Is it safe? Will this barrier become unsound in the future? The fourth question is about profitability. When the entire project is complete, it will have a total capacity of 18,000 megawatts, producing 84.7 billion kilowatt-hours. This can be calculated to annual revenues of roughly 21 billion Yuan, or 3 billion USD. Not only are companies of this size ubiquitous in the West, even in China this would only be a mid-sized company, but the price paid for it is enormous. Is it worth it? The fifth problem is about its ability to prevent floods and generate electricity. Flood prevention and electricity generation are naturally opposing goals. All along the river downstream they are constructing dikes and levees to ensure that the hydropower station can maintain normal operations. The locks at the dam were designed so that a boat could pass through in 2.5 hours, but now it can take as long as four. In addition, silt build-ups are threatening to eventually clog the Chongqing port. As the silt remains in the reservoir, the water downstream becomes clearer, and erodes the riverbed downstream, causing the coastline to recede. Could Shanghai be washed away in the sea? Keep in mind that the name Shanghai means “on the sea”! The sixth question is about relocation of the Three Gorges residents. The relocation issue has always been a center of political maneuverings between the state and the people. Though the area has officially been closed off for a long time, people continue to move there seeking relocation money, adding to the population below the proposed waterline. It is hard enough to accommodate the estimated 1.13 million people requiring relocation, but the real number has already surpassed 2 million. The migrants have destroyed the original social and living environment. Though much money has been spent on reimbursement, it is wasted, and the people always yearn for more. There has been much fraud and waste. No wonder there are so many fraudsters at the reservoir. Seventh is the question of creating an industrial vacuum. The urban planning for the region around the reservoir is too big, with the new cities several times larger than the old ones they are set to replace. With so much expansion but a finite amount of people, will this lead to an industrial vacuum? The eighth question is about mission creep. He who controls resources gets the money. If the dams planned along the Nujiang River (upper Salween) are approved, there will be no more major rivers in China left unobstructed. The ninth question is about the dam’s effects on the ecology. Let’s set aside questions about water pollution and garbage for now. Since the dam’s completion, outbreaks of schistosomiasis have been hitting areas such as Dongting Lake on a cycle roughly equivalent to the reservoir’s water-filling cycle. Looking through related research documents, the construction of other dams such as the Aswan Dam in Egypt were also followed by outbreaks of schistosomiasis. An expert at the Wanzhou Center for Disease Control in Chongqing Municipality has pointed out that the filling of the reservoir has created conditions that facilitate the spread of the schistosomiasis parasite on boats and people to the upper reaches of the river. This disease, once eradicated in China, has sprung back to life. When one official was asked about this problem, his response was: it is necessary to take precautions to prevent this disease. Tenth is the question of whether or not the “era of demolishing dams” is upon us. Internationally, many countries are feverishly demolishing their dams, while we are feverishly building them. What’s going on here? Are we really just smarter than them?
Engels said that man’s understanding of nature is limited, so we would do well to be careful with it. It is worth pondering how to deal with the relationship between resource pyramid schemes and human self-determination.
Upstream, Chongqing was elevated to the level of a state-administered municipality for the Three Gorges project. Now, in their dealings with outsiders, Chongqing residents display an air of confidence and self-importance. Famous writer Lu Xun once noted that in China there is no individual arrogance, only collective arrogance. The Chinese people all seek out individual meaning while relying on the backing of the great motherland and an ancient civilization. They often say “I am a Chinese person” rather than “I am a person”. They often talk about our ancient civilization and the greatness of our motherland, and often have distorted views of the state of China and the world today, which can lead to false arrogance. This arrogance, lacking in a foundation of facts, quickly turns into self-pity when one is faced with adversity. Chongqing residents, with the Three Gorges project and a GDP of 390 billion, are often self-confident, seeing themselves as the lords of western China. They’re only a third of their neighbor Sichuan, which has a GDP of 1.3 trillion, but most Chongqingers still think themselves better than their neighbors in Sichuan. Chongqingers have to wear the world’s finest clothes, drive the nicest cars and waste a lot of money. Chongqing leads western China in name brand consumption. Consumption requires money, but where does this money come from? There are a lot of people in Chongqing, but very few of them actually make real money. Hence, they must figure out ways of enriching themselves off of others. Resources are sold for a bit of money, and then people look for shortcuts. Chongqingers talk about money as if it is not something to be earned, but something to be found. This, again, is like a pyramid scheme; one’s wealth is built upon the financial ruin of others. It is hard to imagine that an engineering project could lead to such a profound change in the people’s mentality. Is this not human alienation caused by massive changes in the environment?
In the middle, water has flooded the homelands of the people from Changshou, Fuling, Wanzhou, Yunyang, Fengjie, Wushan, Yichang and the military district. Some of those people have relocated to other regions, but most have stayed, the only difference being that they moved from the familiar foot of the mountains to the mountaintops, which aren’t really all that suited for human settlement, lacking the soil they once relied on for subsistence. How long can they last solely on the meager reimbursements they were paid? They just sit there watching the continuous rise of the reservoir. What does the future hold for them? Night clubs, glitzy gambling parlors, row upon row of hair salons, stacks of shoeshine stands. The young people you see there all have bleached hair, shiny shoes and high quality name brand knockoff clothes, just hanging around in groups, a decadent generation.
Downstream in Wuhan, it is as if the entire city does nothing but eat, drink and play. The most beautiful buildings in the city are the fancy restaurants, and don’t bother trying to eat in them without a reservation. It looks nothing like the city where that massive fire took place not so long ago. Curiously, I asked them why. People told me that with the Three Gorges Dam upstream, if an accident were to occur, there would be no hope for the city. So that’s it. The reservoir hangs over the people of Hubei Province like the sword of Damocles. No wonder there are so many slums around the city and people doing business in such poor conditions. The people of Hubei, renowned for their prowess, are helpless in the face of the Three Gorges Dam and its two percent of the nation’s electricity. What else can they do but eat, drink and chase money? In light of this, it isn’t hard to believe that so much business would be taking place in an area as decrepit as the Hanzheng Street fire zone. The city is now fertile ground for pyramid schemes and get-rich-quick seminars, which have two things in common. One is the obsession with speed, getting rich quick and quickly becoming successful. The second is an obsession with convenience. They hope to win without fighting, and bring the greatest success at the lowest price. There are drawbacks to both of these, but those drawbacks are passed on to other people and to the environment, becoming an impenetrable “fog”. This is the fog of ideology, the fog of man’s blind development, the pollution fog created by the rapid expansion of the world’s factory, an overall questionable fog.
Now the economic crisis has come, and no one wants the cheap goods that came at such a high price. Can we change our economic means? Can we go from “made in China” to “made for China”? Can we go from “economic growth” to “cultural growth”? Westerners don’t understand the Chinese economy. The Chinese don’t understand western society. I’m doing nothing more than pulling back the fog that shrouds Chinese society, clearing away temporary hopes to close in on the historical fog that makes up our era.
Before City of Fog, I shot Third Front, Sick City and Theft of Romance. They focused on old industry, the ills of the city, and women’s issues, respectively. City of Fog covers all of those previous topics simultaneously. City of Fog is a massive project that winds through many related cities, directly and indirectly touching on the alienation of the people there, who have become shallow and have lost their ideals, with nothing left but desire. The women in these images are a symbol that alludes to this desire. Through photographing these women, we can delve deeper into the historical meaning of the factories, cities and warehouses they are in, reaching a visual hypothesis. In other words, I am placing desire, the process of attaining the objects of desire and the price paid for this desire, in a single picture. This is a contradiction in and of itself. This method of contradiction and complexity is a typical postmodern technique. Think about it, all of China is engaged in a pyramid scheme. We have transformed political fervor into a religious faith in the economy. The state is positioned at the apex of this pyramid. It is holy and correct, the culmination of societal fortunes and the manufacturer of the economic religion. The nation’s GDP has been growing at an annual rate of 8%, but don’t forget that government revenues have been growing at a rate of over 33%. The cities and provinces are at the middle of the pyramid, towns and private enterprises are a level below that, and of course the common people are at the bottom. No idea better suits China’s pyramid scheme than Sartre’s assertion that hell is other people. What about the price? Most people are too busy sweeping the snow from their own doorsteps to pay any heed to the frost on their neighbors’ roofs. The pollution and human alienation that results, just like a pyramid scheme, gets pushed down, level by level, to the point that no one bothers and it becomes public garbage. Fog is a symbol of this public garbage. City of Fog is a visual fable about this Chinese pyramid scheme.
Pearls and Icons
I’ve created an icon, a drama consisting of several women. When this concept is inserted into reality and photographed, it forms a detailed spectacle of a “false reality”. Or you could call it a virtual truth, a surreality. People are usually quick to accept photographic methods that break conventions on the formal level, or they have a bias towards those produced, detail-scarce icon photographs. I don’t think that’s the way to go, because that kind of art can’t go very far. Today, the standard model of art has become a fashion, but new art cannot follow this trend; it cannot be what we see now. When it emerges, it definitely won’t “look like it”; it will definitely be rather distant from our accustomed esthetics. That is the only way it will be able to go far. Art is in the midst of the chaotic mess of history, and for that reason, there is only one way to go, and that is to practice our calligraphy of icons, and create something that no one else can. Add a so called concept, and there, you’re done. So, is there a way we can draw nourishment from society, or place the icons of our determination into the chaos of society? The process of photographing this project was a lot like the formation of a pearl: place a grain of sand into a clam, making it uncomfortable so that it secrets a mucous which envelopes the sand. As it gets bigger and bigger, it turns into a pearl. Of course, there’s one more step, which is to describe this “pearl” in the language of artistic philosophy to give it some academic value. But our pearl here is a manmade artificial pearl. Just like in a pyramid scheme, a fake product is bestowed with unlimited value so that it can be the carrier of the desire for wealth among the people on each level of the pyramid. On each level, the people passing the hot potato know it’s fake, but for their own benefit they will pass the lie on down the pyramid. This is how the pyramid method distorts human nature. When we look back at China now, including the cultural realm, isn’t everybody in on the scam?
Pass the Flower
Most Chinese people remember the game “play the drums, pass the flower”. It’s played like this: there’s one person either blindfolded or with his back to the others who plays a drum while the players, around eight of them, sit in a circle. There is only one flower, which is passed from one player to another to the beat of the drum. When the drumming stops, whoever is holding the flower loses. Sometimes the penalty is to run a lap around the circle; sometimes the loser has to sing a song. Then it starts all over again. I use this game as a striking and satirical metaphor for China. Kissinger once said, control oil (resources) and you control nations, control food and you control people, control finance and you control the world. But how do you control it? Pyramid selling. The explosion of this global financial crisis is the real result of this false pyramid scheme. Though the crisis hit, the solution we’re applying to the crisis is still the pyramid method. That is to say, the crisis can’t be solved. The so called solution is nothing more than to pass the crisis on to others. In the end, the people who really feel the brunt of the crisis will be the poor nations that sell resources. In the not too distant future, the crisis will be over. What about China? For so called internal needs it will build one Three Gorges Dam after another, hanging an increasingly thick fog over our heads.
German psychologist Borwin Bandelow says that one of man’s achievements is that he doesn’t always satisfy his needs. The human brain has a “rewards system”. This rewards system uses the brain’s “internal morphine supply” to stimulate “pleasure receptors”. In the brains of normal people, this “rewards system” works to strike a balance between instinct and control, but for people brainwashed by pyramid schemes, and people that have “borderline personality disorders”, the “rewards system’s” satisfaction thresholds are much higher. They “cannot withstand the delaying of rewards, and always yearn for the feeling of pleasure”, so they give in to their instinctual temptations, using methods that are destructive for themselves or for others to stimulate the production of pleasure hormones. Looking at China today and at some backwards countries, we see rampant, brazen acts of desire everywhere, people doing things that we dare not and cannot do. They have achieved the evil aspirations of mankind. And that has made them idols. I remember a philosopher once said that when a nation’s people lack modernity, all of their efforts towards modernization are for naught. What I would like to say is: when the path to realizing the dream of being a great nation turns into a pyramid scheme, then the resulting world will consist of one fog city after another.