Greed is good?

A new Chinese TV show about Wall Street proves a hit

Greed is good?

“If you want a friend, buy a dog”

The last time Gordon Gekko was on cinema screens, in Oliver Stone’s 1987 hit Wall Street, China didn’t even have a stock market. It would be another three years before the Shanghai Stock Exchange reopened for business, after four decades of ideological mothballing (having been closed in 1949).

Another generation on and Gekko’s back: in Wall Street 2, Money Never Sleeps, which began showing in China last Friday.

He’d be forgiven for feeling a little disorientated, after his lengthy spell behind bars. Shanghai, Hong Kong and Shenzhen were the world’s top three IPO markets in the third quarter of 2010, for instance. On a standalone basis, the $22.1 billion listing of Agricultural Bank of China (see WiC69) made up almost half of total IPO funds raised globally in the same period.

Stone’s script pays lip service to the country’s ‘capitalist’ resurgence. Chinese investors crop up in the plot and the renminbi even gets a mention. There is also a cameo appearance from Zhang Xin, the chief executive of SOHO China, a leading Beijing property developer.

But Stone’s is not the only Wall Street franchise doing the rounds at the moment. This month also saw the conclusion of an eight-hour documentary series about Wall Street produced by CCTV2, the state broadcaster’s business channel.

The series – also called Wall Street – tracks the history of American finance, and was filmed over a three-year period beginning before the Lehman collapse. As such, it is the latest in a line of ‘accessible’ documentaries proving popular in China, and was directed by Li Chengcai, who was also involved in the production of The Rise of the Great Powers, another major series in 2006.

For an audience used to textbook denunciations of foreign involvement in Chinese affairs, The Rise of the Great Powers was something of a break with tradition in offering a more balanced assessment. Or as a Xinhua reviewer put it at the time: “The documentary takes an objective attitude towards the countries that made China suffer.”

In fact, the series was delivered with Politburo endorsement, tallying as it did with various policy motifs, including China’s ambitions for a ‘peaceful rise’ itself. But another of the best-known Chinese documentaries has a more chequered history, as far as the authorities are concerned. River Elegy was hugely popular when it was first broadcast in 1988. But it would soon be banned, and blamed for contributing to the political ferment of the following year.

That’s because its producers took an iconoclastic line on Chinese history, presenting the Yellow River as a metaphor for what they thought to be the country’s rotting cultural bedrock (and, implicitly, much of its modern-day condition). The Yellow River’s silt and sediment was contrasted to the blue depths of the Pacific Ocean. The inference: China needed to open itself more to Western ideas (and reforms).

With CCTV’s Wall Street, the admiration for all things Western is much more nuanced. Li tells New Weekly magazine that he respects the American financial industry’s ability to deliver innovation, for instance, and the relative absence of government interference. But the Wall Street Journal detected something a little different in the documentary’s prominent coverage of America’s first secretary of the treasury, Alexander Hamilton, who favoured a powerful central government (and a mercantilist trade policy too). Any lessons here?

Of course, Li was also an eyewitness to the consequences of all that unrestrained creativity, in the meltdown of 2008. Wall Street then took on a new form in the popular imagination, as the “King Kong” of greed and duplicity, Li tells New Weekly. Suddenly Chinese commentators were celebrating their distance from Wall Street’s excesses, and seeing opportunity to capitalise on its misfortunes.

In part, that concerns Li, who also wants the series to encourage debate about further reform of Chinese capital markets. But it also reflects a more general ambivalence in the treatment of Anglo-Saxon capitalism in the Chinese press. On the one hand, there is a growing confidence that China can forge its own financial path. But on the other, there is still the instinct to imitate, especially from the long list of Chinese cities to announce plans to become financial hubs.

Since May tourists have also been flocking for photos at Shanghai’s newly unveiled equivalent of the Wall Street bull sculpture. The bull is nearly double the weight of its American counterpart and “stronger”, the local media reports. And though it’s from the same sculptor, Arturo Di Modica, it has been tweaked (to symbolise optimism, its head looks up, rather than down, for example). But many tourists will be oblivious to the changes: it remains an image of Wall Street transplanted to Shanghai, and shows the spirit of imitation remains strong.

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