Noir Urbanisms: Dystopic Images of the Modern City

By Gyan Prakash | Go to book overview

Chapter 6
Postsocialist Urban Dystopia?

LI ZHANG

China’s transition to a market economy and its entry into the orbit of global capitalism have been elements in a highly uneven and disorienting process. By retaining a remarkable economic growth, the Chinese state is a successful example of how socialism can transform itself to adapt to the globalizing world through reforms (rather than revolution). But such fast capital accumulation and large-scale privatization have intensified social inequality and dislocation in recent years. This troubling trend is reflected in the rising popular discontent, resistance, and civic unrest that have spread from the city to the countryside (see Lee 2007; O’Brien and Li 2006; Zhang 2004). There has emerged a sense of profound confusion, anxiety, and spiritual emptiness among some social groups as they have faced the challenges brought by this transformation. As socialist ethics, morality, and values are fading away, market forces and mass consumerism are taking a tight grip on everyday life in Chinese society.

The city is at the heart of these breathless changes and ruptures. Cityscape has become the very subject of transformation, a key site of social struggle, and a source of popular imaginary regarding the trajectory of a society in the remaking. Yet, not all Chinese cities have the same fate and opportunity in this process. While some are becoming wealthier and gaining prominence on the national and global stages, others are declining, marginalized, and even forgotten. In the meta-narrative of development and growth, large metropolises (such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen) have come to stand for prosperity, progress, glory, and hope, thus receiving most of the public and global attention. They are regarded as the concrete realization of the New China dream, a negation of the Maoist utopia and a triumph of consumer paradise. But this sanguine, one-dimensional view tends to mask other shades of the city and troubled urban experiences that are painful and disorienting.

This essay addresses the following questions: How have the images of dark urbanism surfaced in contemporary Chinese popular culture and popular social imaginary? What are the social conditions that have generated

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