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World

Local Chinese Government Backs Titanic Replica

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep, with the story of a very big dream.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TITANIC")

LEONARDO DICAPRIO: (As Jack Dawson) I'm the king of the world.

INSKEEP: That, of course, is Leo DiCaprio in the movie "Titanic." And this is the story of an exact replica of the Titanic. A developer is building the ship in rural southwest China, far from any ocean, far from any iceberg. NPR's Rob Schmitz reports.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: There are a lot of questions that spring to mind upon arriving to the construction site for the Chinese replica of the Titanic. Like, why is this being built here, in the remote countryside a thousand miles from the sea? Or, why is this being built? Or simply, why?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SCHMITZ: The self-congratulatory infomercial the developer shows me upon arrival, complete with a computer-generated Titanic rising out of the sea, doesn't help much.

(SOUNDBITE OF INFOMERCIAL)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As narrator) The incredible Titanic? The Chinese are amazing.

SCHMITZ: But there is a promise of a delivery date.

(SOUNDBITE OF INFOMERCIAL)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As narrator) August 30, 2017, the unsinkable Titanic to be delivered.

SCHMITZ: But that date has passed, and work on the ship is far from finished.

SHAOJUN SU: (Through interpreter) I didn't expect the ship would be this big. The movie didn't mention how big it was.

SCHMITZ: That's Su Shaojun, president of Seven Star Energy Investment Group. Building an exact replica of the Titanic here in the Sichuanese countryside was his idea.

SU: (Through interpreter) I wanted to build a resort, but I didn't want to copy others and make just another theme park. I wanted to build one that has cultural depth to it. I came up with the idea at 3 in the morning.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY HEART WILL GO ON")

CELINE DION: (Singing) Once more, you've opened the door and you're here in my heart, and my heart will go on and on.

SCHMITZ: Twenty years ago, Su saw the James Cameron film "Titanic." The movie had taken China by storm at a time when China's economy was emerging from dormancy and opportunities were everywhere. The film moved Su so much that when he became a big developer he proposed building a resort and theme park with an exact replica of the ship. He secured a loan of nearly $200 million and worked out a property deal with the local government of Daying, a town in Sichuan province.

SU: (Through interpreter) Why am I so confident of its success? First, people from all over know the Titanic. Second, Daying is in between two cities with 20 million people each. The person who designed China's Disneyland came here and said we'd have more visitors than them.

SCHMITZ: Economist Christopher Balding's not so sure. He's seen many other Chinese cities champion big projects like the Titanic. Most of them sink.

CHRISTOPHER BALDING: There is a lot of pressure in government to deliver results. One of the easiest ways to do that is to go out, build something really big and say look at what we've done for you. The further we go down this road, and especially the more debt-constrained China becomes, that's not a winning formula.

SCHMITZ: Back at the Titanic, work is years behind schedule. A dam has been built to flood a valley for the resort, but the hotel complex, including what the developer bills as the world's largest indoor beach, isn't close to being finished. As for the ship, crews have built the thousand-foot long hull, but two thirds of the Titanic remain, and the thousands of tons of steel needed to complete it is suddenly twice as expensive as last year. Workers have left. The cranes dotting the site are frozen in time.

ZHOU: (Through interpreter) People have lost confidence in it. Only a few people are working on the ship. They don't have the money to pay their salaries.

SCHMITZ: A farmer who only gives his surname, Zhou, for fear of trouble with local authorities, has watched the Titanic falter for years from across the river. If it's ever finished, they'll flood his village of a thousand people.

ZHOU: (Through interpreter) We haven't heard when they'll demolish our village. I'm concerned, but as long as they give us a reasonable amount of money for our land, I'll be happy.

SCHMITZ: A night at the resort, he quips, will cost twice his current monthly wages. Across the river, I asked developer Su whether recreating a ship that ended up sinking to the bottom of the ocean is a good idea.

SU: (Through interpreter) We Chinese can turn a bad thing into a good thing. We want to let people learn from history.

SCHMITZ: They certainly will, whether he finishes building the Titanic or not. Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Daying, Sichuan Province, China. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.