Why might Wang, China’s richest man, need so badly to impress? He's on his home turf, after all. (Or is he?) Why would a man whose fortune was based originally on real estate in the port of Dalian choose not to base his greatest and most publicly touted project to date back there in Liaoning province?
Perhaps because Dalian is a former stomping ground of Bo Xilai, the politictian who was jailed for life on Sunday—the same day as Wanda’s big announcement. There are no known ties between Wang and Bo—ties he denied when he first made a splash in the Western press by spending $2.6 billion to buy America’s No.2 movie theater chain, AMC.
But two senior Chinese journalists with state run media with whom I spoke after the Wanda announcement expressed concerns. One said that there might be more Bo-related skeletons forthcoming, perhaps even from Dalian where Bo was mayor (1993-2000) just as Wang's took over as CEO at Wanda (1993) and began building a fortune measured at $8.6 billion this year. The other observed that Chinese entrepreneurs, no matter how powerful, are subject to the whims of the Standing Committee of the Politburo, the secretive men at the top of the Chinese Communist Party:
“Whatever plans Wang has right now is subject to change without any notice,” the second journalist wrote on condition of anonymity.
Another thing to consider is this: Qingdao, (or Tsingtao, if you spell it the way the world-famous brewery there does) could just be the site of another attempt by a wealthy Chinese to build up more of the real estate that got him rich in the first place, under the guise of something else—culture.
Even as the central government in Beijing has tried to cool overheated real estate development and speculation, it has promoted the mission that China's private enterprise must help the government by using the media and culture to get out the message of President Xi Jinping’s “Chinese Dream,” whatever that turns out to be.
Hollywood’s long been good at following the money in order to be able to practice the craft of giving voice to universal stories. Those stories may seem unsophisticated and cloying at times but they often possess an ease and confidence that sells around the world.
When considering the bargain anybody in Hollywood must be pondering now as they get involved with a company and a man whose fortune is subject to the whim of the CCP, it might be wise to read Brandeis History Professor Thomas Doherty’s new book Hollywood and Hitler: 1933-1939, a tale of some of the studios’ self-censorship, first as a cost of doing business, but ultimately at a much greater moral cost.
Wang Jianlin’s recent investment in the film industry has all the hallmarks of Chinese big business: huge money, large scale, and, perhaps, some influence. Last year’s AMC deal and this year’s Qingdao deals may make Hollywood film producers happy, but they will also please Wang’s political friends. After all, China and Chinese entrepreneurs are desperate to become more visible players in the world nowadays. And the Hollywood model conveys the right sense of aspiration for the time; Hollywood epitomizes the American Dream, just as the Chinese are trying to create their own version of it.