Of course China is building a full-size, working replica of the Titanic


A 1998 photo shows a Beijing man walking past an advertisement for the film "Titanic."  (Stephen Shaver/AFP/Getty Images)

What could possibly go wrong? China's ambitions plan to build the Titanic II, a functioning one-to-one scale replica of the ship synonymous with spectacular tragedy, is proceeding apace. The builders are accepting $1 million offers for the maiden voyage, which is scheduled for 2016.

But just in case a Titanic replica sounded too safe for your taste, the project is being led by a Chinese construction firm. Although China has indeed built some remarkably impressive things in the past few years, it has also developed a reputation for shoddy construction, for using cheap materials and for sometimes dangerous corner-cutting.

Leave it to the Global Times, an official and sometimes not totally self-aware Chinese government outlet, to address the concerns head-on and in a way that somehow makes them even scarier. "Frequent scandals involving shoddy products domestically and internationally have turned the term 'Made in China' into a synonym for cheap and low value-added products," the Global Times said in an editorial that called the Titanic II an opportunity for China to prove the skeptics wrong. "It is indeed a challenge for China to fulfill a flawless construction mission as the world watches."

State-run Xinhua, in an article meant to assuage fears about the safety of the reproduction, includes this telling line: "Titanic II will mostly replicate the design of the ill-fated original, but will be equipped with cutting-edge technology and the latest navigation and safety systems." There will also be a gym and "high-class restaurants."

Okay, enough teasing Chinese state media. The hubris and short-term thinking that went into the original Titanic might be all-too-common in day-to-day Chinese construction, as with some apartment buildings and, yes, schools, but it does not appear to have been a problem in such high-prestige projects as the Beijing airport and, presumably, the Titanic II.

In some ways, it's not so surprising that China would reproduce the Titanic. The country has built full-size replicas of entire Western tourist destinations. It's a practice meant to encourage Chinese consumers to spend more money on domestic tourism, but it also seems to reflect interesting conceptions of place and identity. For Western tourists, the idea of visiting an identical reproduction of the Austrian mountain village of Hallstatt might ring somehow false, but it seems to be popular in China. I'm not sure what informs those different sensibilities toward tourism.

There's also a fascinating history to China's love for the Titanic, which goes back to the 1997 film of the same name. It is still the third-highest-grossing film ever in China, which helped set off the Hollywood-led effort co cash in on the Chinese film market. Even the 3D remake was the highest-grossing foreign film in China last year.

Most significantly, the film was publicly praised by then-president Jiang Zemin, who urged fellow Communist Party politburo members to go see it. "I invite my comrades of the Politburo to see the movie — not to propagate capitalism but to better understand our opposition, the better to enable us to succeed," he said. "Let us not assume that we can't learn from capitalism."

Zemin's colleagues, it seems, may have followed his advice.

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Max Fisher · February 21, 2013