Today, I’m following up yesterday’s cultural industry post with a friend’s highly speculative explanation for the apparent decline of the Century Handicraft Plaza. This conversation interests me because it provides a sociological explanation for economic success; the question isn’t what can be known, but rather, in the absence of knowledge, what ought to be assumed. Moreover, the assumption is interestingly at odds with Weber’s puritans, who saw wealth as a sign of God’s blessing. In contrast, my friend sees wealth and economic viability as signs of corruption.
Me: When I went to the Yongfengyuan store in the Handicraft Plaza, I was surprised by the fact that they were selling the same cultural products as last year and that the second floor showroom had been converted to office space. How can this happen to a national level cultural enterprise? Moreover, many of the surrounding shops had closed. So despite architectural renovations, the Plaza seemed abandoned.
Friend: It’s actually not too difficult to figure out. The cultural industry fair is over, so there’s no reason to keep pumping money into the Plaza. Also, Yongfengyuan makes expensive gifts that officials exchange, so the brand has probably been a way of channeling public money into private pockets.
Me: You’re kidding!?
Friend: Of course not. If purchasing Yongfengyuan products didn’t serve an alternative purpose, who would buy them? What’s more, you have to assume that the alternative purpose is private gain. I mean, look at what Yongfengyuan sells — overpriced bone china that can’t be used for anything but giving away.
My friend looked at me and then nodded sagely before explaining: In China you have to think about the political background of the company leaders. Many companies come and go based on their boss’ relationship with the ruling administration. Right now, China is changing administrations so its possible that Yongfengyuan’s guanxi are leaving and new officials will launder their money through another company.
Me: And what makes you think this?
Friend: I do business. Nobody ever tells anyone anything directly. However, once you have some experience, you begin to realize that situations only make sense if you assume that public money is being channeled into private hands. The innocent can’t survive.
Me: Are you innocent?
Friend: Of course, I am! I say what I think. Those who are really involved in these activities don’t say anything, but you can tell they know something because their actions are profitable!
For my friend, the question of Cultural Industry is not can it grow the economy, but rather, whose pockets are being lined? Thus, he speculated about the guanxi connecting Yongfengyuan to the Shenzhen Municipal government; the fate of the Handicraft Plaza, he said, would be determined by how useful it proved to be to the next administration.