Situating the ‘Science’ Craze in China
The Stillbirth of Simulated ‘Villas’ in Ordos 100
This essay focuses on the widespread techno-science craze in contemporary China, examining its complex and often misguided role in the country’s pursuit of ‘urbanism’ as a benchmark of modernisation. Drawing on Chinese scholar Tian Song’s invitation to be vigilant against an unreflective faith in science, the article looks critically at the technicist mindset of many Chinese technocrats through the case of the now aborted Ordos 100 project.
In The King of Trees, a semi-autobiographical tale by Ah Cheng, Li Li, the leader of a group of sent-down youths working on a state-owned plantation in Yunnan, southwestern China, is asked by his group members why he is so resolved to cut down the giant tree known locally as the King of Trees. He answers: ‘Its location is not scientific!’ (Ah 2010: 43; emphasis added). He then shares his ‘scientific’ expertise with the group by explaining that the giant casts too much shade over the trees around it, thus hindering their normal growth. It later turns out that Li’s real intent was to take the lead in clearing the mountainside of all vegetation (including the King of Trees) and then revegetate it with rubber trees, which are a fast-growing cash crop and will bring in more revenue to the state plantation. Indeed, before this discussion, Li had explained to his group members: ‘The growth cycle of plants means that the new supersedes the old. It’s a law of nature’ (Ah 2010: 14; emphasis added).
Li’s attempt to replace the mountain’s vegetation occurred during the ‘Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside’ movement (上山下乡)—a campaign that mobilised urban youth to relocate to rural and frontier regions of China in the 1960s and 1970s (Bonnin 2022). One goal for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in ‘sending down’ these youths was for them to receive ‘hands-on’ ideological lessons by working alongside peasants and ethnic minorities to ‘reshape’ (改造) the natural world so that nature would answer to human needs.
When Li refers to science, his concept of being scientific is confined to a purely instrumental application of technological knowhow to generate economic value—value that is conflated with societal progress. Professionally trained specialists and technocrats in China have long been espousing this conception of science, framing it through utilitarian goals of power and wealth for the good of humanity. Speaking of the role of science as a double-edged sword, Tian Song, a notable scholar in the philosophy of science in China, offers a pointed view on the ambiguity of science in Chinese public discourse:
Science is a broad and loose concept; it is usually conjoined with technology in use. In this way, science and technology as a compound word [科学技术] has made it utterly easy and handy to denote meaning in a mixed-bag and secretive stand-in fashion …Often the word is used as an adjective for being righteous, intelligent, effective, proven, authoritative, and so on. (Tian 2014: 17; my translation)
Unsurprisingly, to the mind of the Chinese technocrat, such thinking seems to grant political safety and moral immunity to a technology-minded person. Tian defines this typical mindset as ‘technicist’—that is, a view that gives personal choice the authority of a scientific truth as long as the decision-maker is technically trained. In Tian’s view, these technocrats have indulged their faith in science and technology to such a degree that they have turned their trust in technological ways of doing things into a kind of cult (2014: 23).
Tian also directs his critical scrutiny to the technocrats’ obsession with a positivist conception of science as a teleological destiny. He writes: ‘We used to believe that science could ensure a bright future on our behalf. Better still, science was a self-propelling force in the service of human progress. It could move the human society ahead’ (Tian 2014: 23). How do science and technology fulfil this promise? This question brings us back to Li Li’s remark in The King of Trees about replacing the old with the new as part of the laws of nature. He uses the word ‘supersede’ more in the sense of ‘supplant’—that is, getting rid of the useless and establishing the useful in its place. Li’s claim reveals the conceptual locus of his thinking about making historical progress, which resembles the pattern of dynastic rise and fall in Chinese history—a dynamic also often compared to wheels rolling on tracks that cannot be turned back, which is the CCP’s favoured metaphor for making progress along a linear, lockstep law of irreversibility. This has been precisely the CCP’s strategy for across-the-board cleansing of socialist China’s political system, which has led to disruptive elimination of the old ideology and drastic construction of the new. It is therefore no surprise that Li chose not to use the natural seasonal cycle of growth, fruition, decline, and rebirth.
A case in point is the fluid and evolving meaning of the CCP’s ‘Four Modernisations’ (四个现代化), which initially included the modernisation of industry, agriculture, national defence, and science and technology. When the policy was first issued in 1954, it placed singular emphasis on the urgent need to modernise the technical knowhow of science and technology. Even though policymakers have lately shifted gears at the state level and begun remedying environmental crises, as well as runaway speculation in finance and housing investment, a myth continues to hang over the heads of many technocrats about the triumphalist potential of science and technology.
Educating Scientific Triumphalism
Educated in the 1950s, these technocrats were given Soviet-style training that relied heavily on the separation of technological subjects from other branches of learning, especially humanism. This approach broke down college education into subject areas (院系分家) such as ‘Railroad College’, ‘Petroleum College’, ‘Postal and Telecommunication College’, and thus reset higher education during the decades after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. True to this narrow approach, these technocrats have robustly internalised a single-track, linear, and lockstep logic that can be characterised by its belief in direct causality, irreversible progress, and technicist triumphalism. It entails the following.
First, their logic is linearly mapped along a single track because they believe that, when measured with the pace and trajectory of Western nations’ supremacy, China has ‘lagged’ in the race to modernise and now must catch up. Thus, logically, they must aim for the various milestones of technological modernity—that is, making nuclear weapons, building aircraft-carriers, developing space science, and inventing cutting-edge digital technology. While this proves that their modernity is centrally determined by evolving technology, we must ask: ‘Does it mean that this is the only path to becoming modern?’ And: ‘What, after all, constitutes modernity?’
Second, their logic is lockstep because they are convinced that—since the West has demonstrated a proven path to technological supremacy—they can emulate this model by becoming wealthy and powerful before all else. Once they gain the advantage of technological prowess, they will surely be in a better position to tackle environmental crises. Of course, implicit in this is the acceptance that China will experience the same catastrophic deforestation, air, water, and soil pollution and loss produced by the Western model of industrialisation and urbanisation. Can China afford to pay so dearly just to be technologically superior?
Third, their logic is teleological in the sense that they believe technological supremacy alone will guarantee China’s smooth arrival at the destination. These technocrats have subscribed to the idea of science as triumphalist in its projected outcomes and irreversible as a law of human progress. Likewise, they trust that the logic of science is an innate and singular force and conceive of technological supremacy as a universal panacea. We cannot but be reminded of the naivety of this approach and the precarity of this path of technological triumphalism, particularly in the face of the numerous technocratic disasters that have occurred in the name of modernising China.
A recent case in point is the infamously short-lived Ordos 100 housing project in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, which can perhaps best be engaged with through the documentary Ordos 100 (鄂尔多斯) (Ai and Herzog & de Meuron 2012).
Villa Crazy? A Stillbirth of Urbanism
Curated by Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron and Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, the 2012 documentary Ordos 100 depicts the high-growth residential boomtown of Kangbashi District in Ordos City, Inner Mongolia. It offers an investigative and personal view of the early phases of the planning and construction of the Ordos 100 project near Kangbashi District in 2008. Ai Weiwei’s Beijing-based FAKE Design company helped coordinate the daily activities of the overseas architects but he devoted most of his time to working behind the camera. The project was funded by private developers who had been trained as hydraulic engineers and investment from Ordos City officials, in collaboration with 100 renowned architects from 27 countries. The architects’ role was to design 100 villas for a newly designated area billed as the Cultural Creativity Zone (文化创意区)—a cultural and ethnic showcase. Ostensibly, this project aimed to achieve a new type of urbanism that would show how a high-growth frontier city like Ordos could transition into a culturally rich phase of growth.
Ordos’s case for constructing pathbreaking forms of urbanism for the entire nation, and even globally, rested on what were seen as the city’s advantages: 1) its economy had lately taken off due to coal, natural gas, and rare earth mineral extraction through state-owned and private enterprises, producing wealth to bankroll a host of cultural enrichment activities; 2) it occupied a vast stretch of steppe with a small human population, resulting in high levels of wealth per capita; and 3) it hosted a colourful and diverse human tapestry of Mongolian, Chinese Muslim, and Han ethnic and cultural heritages. The Ordos 100 project was, however, never completed and now serves as an exemplar of failed Western-style urbanisation.
The documentary has some poignant moments that provide insight into the ambitions of this megaproject. At the inaugural press conference, the hosts of Ordos 100 introduced to the invited architects the blueprints for the completed project. The depiction of lush foliage and a lake took the audience by surprise, because all they had so far seen was the desert-like terrain around Ordos. When they asked about the available resources, such as water, the hosts simply replied: ‘When you complete your designs and we build the villas, there will be water’, implying that their ambitions for the project were sealed in future reality (Ai and Herzog & de Meuron 2012: 14:03 mins). Not only did the project never reach completion, but also (with a few exceptions) construction did not start on the buildings that had been designed, and the designated lots remain vacant. It was later revealed that the investors pulled the plug on the project when they discovered unusual features in the participating architects’ designs to cope with seasonal sandstorms, the severely cold winters, and the shortage of water (Ulfstjerne 2016). Despite their brief stay in Ordos, but true to their professional integrity, the architects relied on their lived experiences in their responses to the physical environment in which they were working—something that became clear to me after viewing some of their completed blueprints posted on the internet. It is therefore logical to presume that the investors withdrew their funding in medias res because the designs diverged from their imagined outcomes for the ‘villas’.
The Chinese term ‘villa’ (别墅) has a complex lexical history, with its best-known usage by Wang Wei (c. 693–761 CE), a Tang Dynasty landscape-loving Buddhist poet. Wang used the term in a famous poem about his rural estate, which most scholars agree was half-fictional to express his yearning for an escape to a dream-like rustic home. Translated into today’s internet lexicon, the word is a simulation of the poet’s dream home and, to the Chinese netizens already addicted to visual hyperreality, it has morphed into a rallying cry for a speculative frenzy in real estate investments like the Ordos 100 project. The frenzy was supercharged by media images imported from the West of expensive stand-alone mansions—prompting a craze for similar Western-style landmark buildings. It is no surprise, then, that Chinese investors in Ordos regarded the construction of luxury Western-style villas as an express ticket to material wealth and political gains. In the context of urban modernist progress, such villas represented the desirable living standard. In the eyes of the technocrats, moreover, they would also bring about exceptional career opportunities and bring honour and respect from their peers at home and overseas. As Bianca Bosker mockingly writes: ‘In this respect, the generation of perfect copies of Western achievements … can serve as a potent symbol of the civilizational superiority of the “counterfeiters”’ (2013: 25; emphasis added).
Questions remain, however. Can Western-style villas, albeit flawlessly made, symbolise the superiority of the counterfeiters just by way of reverse engineering and replication? Related, too, are questions about urbanism itself. If urbanism is a technological mechanism out of the Western modernisation toolkit, can non-Western nations duplicate it without having to worry about the pitfalls it entails? These questions can be explored by looking at the pivotal roles played by Ai Weiwei as a supervisor of the project’s day-to-day operations and as the clear-eyed curator quietly directing and editing behind the camera. Early in the documentary, Ai is seen chatting with architects freshly arrived in Ordos from overseas; he spells out how he envisions the villa-building project as ‘a movement’ that ‘is about communicating’ and the ‘exchange of ideas, knowledge and experiences’. He declares: ‘We are not interested in producing architecture. We are more interested in human conceptual exchange. It’ll be more exciting because we are not talking about fixed projects’ (Ai and Herzog & de Meuron 2012: 2:32–3:41 mins). This is a far cry from what the city officials and investors were hoping to achieve through urbanism.
Beyond Stillbirth: A Lesson in Simulating Urbanism
Ironically, Ai’s time yielded the conceptual fruits he envisioned, despite the untimely cancellation of the Ordos 100 project by the investors. Ai’s brainchild was delivered precisely by aiming the camera at his individual meetings with the architects, their questions and answers at the group sessions, and their thoughts shared among themselves. Prompted by their professional expertise and various cultural backgrounds, these architects lost no time in voicing their ideas about the project’s social and cultural contexts. Gilles Deleuze says insightfully: ‘Machines are social before being technical’ (1986: 13). In the same vein, the architects swiftly converged on the negligence of the project leaders in not providing context for the villas’ design. Their initial questions are aimed at the ‘contextual vacuum’ during the project’s early phase. Among them, Francisco Pardo from Mexico addresses the size of the lots designated for each villa: ‘[A] house 1,000-square metres big is a house for the rich people’ (Ai and Herzog & de Meuron 2012: 10:52 mins). Clearly, Pardo is concerned that the hosts have not explained why such large villas are to be built in a frontier town. Sharon Potbard of Israel directly correlates the lot size to the social relationships of the future owners: ‘The main difference between a villa and a house … has to do with questions like “Who cleans your house?” “Who cooks your meals?” “Where does this guy [the villa owner] work?” “What are his living conditions?”’ (Ai and Herzog & de Meuron 2012: 17:34–41 mins). As a socially engaged architect, Potbard does not mince his words about his inner concern: ‘I’m helping the Chinese to build or rebuild a class society in the context of China’s actual system, which is communist or socialist on the one hand, but capitalist on the other’ (10:32 mins). Relating to the post-Apartheid rebuilding of his nation, South African Mokena Makeka emphasises the need to avoid the negative impacts of urbanism:
It’s about making urban spaces that are comfortable for people. It’s about bringing dignity to the people because the difference between those who have a lot and those who have little is quite big. We have the same thing in South Africa … Urban design, urban planning, when they are done well, it frees up the architects to do just what the architects are good at. (Ai and Herzog & de Meuron 2012: 19:02–39 mins)
These are insightful questions and it is not surprising that some of those asking are from the Global South, such as Mexico and South Africa, because the contextual vacuum they encountered in Ordos was similar and easily relatable to their design careers. What is striking is that the documentary shows no indication that the local officials and investors attempted to respond to or act on these issues. The contextual vacuum on which the documentary dwells at the outset bodes ill for the fate of the project. Yet, this arguably, and ironically, fulfils what Ai Weiwei intended for the project—that is, to bring China and the rest of the world face-to-face in a conceptual exchange in the hope of making the modern world a better place in which to live regardless of one’s ethnic or cultural heritage, or access to wealth and power.
In conclusion, what Ordos 100 offers us are costly but useful lessons. At the level of the project’s civil planning, we now know that creating zones of attractive mansions and other landmarks based on foreign templates is risky, unworthy, and irresponsible; this is especially true when such buildings are perceived as a template that can be applied globally without attending to the ethnic and social conditions such as those in a frontier town. Even if local investors have been successful economically and have accrued huge wealth, that wealth does not automatically beget ethnic and cultural enrichment. At the level of equating science with universal progress, it is unscientific to assume that foreign design ideas can be replicated anywhere without properly assessing the local climate, topography, vegetation, other natural resources, and human conditions. As such, the model of Western urbanism as a benchmark of modernisation can only fail if it is applied without consideration to local conditions in China.