Avatar the movie opened up in China on January 4th, 2010. Lines stretched for blocks outside of most every theater in the nation for the next week as waves of Chinese went to see the next stage in movie evolution, 3D fantasy on a Hollywood scale. I went on the 6th and from the first few seconds, when water droplets from the crygenic sleep chamber floated right in front of my face, I sat agape and fascinated by the visual spectacle. All around me, I heard the elated gasps and shrieks of an enraptured audience.
What followed afterward, all across the world, was an analysis of the movie’s visuals and message from dozens of perspectives. In the US, editorials criticized the movie for employing the same old “white guy saves the natives” guilt-fantasy that has been the theme of many a movie, from Dances with Wolves to a New World. In China, the reaction to the message was no less intense, but focused on a much more immediate, more Chinese problem. The problem of Home.
For the past 20 years, China has been playing catch up, economically, with the rest of the world. China as a nation is catching up with the big boys and is many ways surpassing them and an integral part of that success has been the real estate boom that has turned villages like Shenzhen into international powerhouses and forever transformed the skylines of every major (and minor) city in China. China is urbanizing very quickly and the long-sought after goal of turning farmers into factory workers and laborers is close at hand, but the sacrifices made by millions of Chinese in the name of their Motherland and Progress is starting to tear at the social fabric.
The theater fell silent near the middle of the movie when the Nav’i were forced to watch their home, the Mother Tree, be destroyed and razed to the ground. The silence was full and begged for expression. At the time, I thought it was the pain shared in a theater and did not realize how big the outpouring of comments and essays and blogposts would be the very next day. On popular blogs like Mop, hundreds of comments compared the destruction of the Navi’i home with the widespread demolition of homes across China. Other sites, like ChinaSmack and EastSouthWestNorth translated fragments of these posts for foreign consumption, but they could only give a small taste of what was really boiling underneath.
One essay in particular, posted on the wildly popular Douban.com, is an emotional and in depth response to the rampant demolition of peoples’ homes. The essay does not deal with the old, cultural neighborhoods and their value as historical relics, but goes into the very emotional idea of one’s home. The author questions whether or not Chinese today actually can call any place they live in a home, because in China one cannot “own” a piece of property, but only “rent” it for up to 70 years. Not only does one never actually own the home or the land one lives on, but the local government can at any moment change their plans and decide to build a road through your neighborhood. Even more galling is the fact that private developers and local officials often conspire to get rid of poor workers and farmers, then use the land to build (or not to build) high rises — the government forces the people off of the land with minimum compensation then sells the land to the developer for a good price, after which the developer sells the land and any improvements to the growing affluent class of Chinese that are thoroughly enjoying China’s economic miracle. The workers are left with inadequate compensation and the destruction of their community.
The comments on this essay are also revealing, in that the majority of them express the same disgust for developers and officials and fully half of the responses say “we are waiting for you to be erased,” because essays like these, stories like these are suppressed by the government in order to maintain social stability.
A case in point is the recent tragic death of a woman in Chengdu, who climbed to the roof of her home in November 2009 and set herself on fire in full view of onlookers, police and the demolition crew poised to destroy her home. The woman, named Tang Fuzhen, has a very typical story: in 1996 she built her home here and lived for 10 years without any interference from the authorities. In August of 2007, the local government decided to build a waste management plant near her home. In October, they told her her home was illegal and she would have to leave.
This story, although one of thousands of similar tragic tales, swept through the web like wildfire. Netease quickly deleted their coverage of the story, but not before thousands of netizens left their often angry, but mostly hopeless remarks.
Avatar, or more specifically the spectacle of Mother Tree falling in flames, has brought the anger of the netizen and the tragedy of the common, poor laborer into everyone’s living room. People who normally would not even think of such things, just go about their daily business in a fast paced growing economy that requires fast wits and daring, these people are suddenly talking about the pain of losing a home and the absurdity of “renting” a plot of land that cannot be passed on to children or grandchildren. This is a matter of great concern for Chinese parents. The family structure here is still very strong, even after years of being battered by wars, famines, revolutions and unfettered capitalism. For a Chinese to not help his children buy a home is still very rare, so with each demolition and accompanying tragedy, this very deep-rooted need — to provide for one’s children — is threatened.
It is very revealing to see that many Westerners, especially Americans, choose to see the guilt/fantasy of the white man redeeming himself and saving the planet.