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Credit crunchable

With his customary impeccable timing, Charles Saatchi launched his new gallery with a Chinese show a

One thing you have never been able to accuse Charles Saatchi of is bad timing. Who else could spend three years planning a new gallery, fill it with symbols of the eclipse of western power by China, and unveil it in the week that capitalism seemed to be imploding? On 9 October, the great showman officially opened the doors of the third incarnation of his collection with an exhibition entitled "The Revolution Continues: New Chinese Art". The public, groggy on the Footsie and the Dow, was ushered in to see, in the first of the splendid white rooms, all the architecture of western power buckling and crumbling. Liu Wei had made a suitably apocalyptic global cityscape out of dog chews; Capitol Hill had never seemed so edible, so credit crunchable.

Like all the greatest admen, Saatchi has always had an uncanny knack for selling you what you want before you know you want it. In 1988, just after Big Bang, when all the City nonsense started, he put his money on the idea that the deregulated financial boom would require an art that both reflected its something-from-nothing character and could cater to its self-centred excesses. When he walked into Damien Hirst's self-curated "Freeze" at Surrey Docks in London, he knew immediately that he had found it. In the two decades since, he has made himself a one-man Medici clan, planning his acquisitions from the bathtub of his Tuscan villa, trawling the studios of the East End, scooping up the sharkiest, bloodiest in tooth and claw art he can find, and flogging it on to bonus-boggled financiers.

It is worth remembering that Saatchi commissioned Hirst's iconic Jaws for £50,000, at the time a headline-making sum. He sold it, badly decayed and fleshed out with fibreglass, the formaldehyde clouded by bleach, to a Wall Street hedge-fund manager for £6.5m. (Hirst has always shared his patron's gift for market analysis; Rome was not quite in flames when he organised his own great, "end of an era", "everything must go" sell-off at Sotheby's last month.)

There is nothing that Saatchi can do that is without premeditated and potent symbolism. The first incarnation of his gallery, in Boundary Road in St John's Wood, north London, which cemented the impossible idea of conceptual art in the mind of the British public, was housed in a disused paint factory (in other words, it did exactly what it said on the tin). Having stolen the heart of the deregulating chancellor's daughter, he could not subsequently resist the idea of moving his collection to the former Greater London Council building on the South Bank. The gallery failed as a public art space only because Saatchi could not let go of the delicious irony of putting his Emins and Hirsts into the wood-panelled warren of offices that had most recently housed Ken Livingstone's doomed administration. He even left the standard-issue bakelite clocks on the walls, stopped forever at the moment that Margaret Thatcher put an abrupt end to London's brief socialist fantasy. As he gave me a walking tour for an article when that gallery opened, he found it hard to suppress his natural kid-in-a-sweetshop excitement at having a mass-produced spot painting by Hirst, entitled Beautiful, cheap, shitty, too easy, above a bureaucrat's fireplaces.

His new space, the neoclassical old Duke of York's Barracks, just off Sloane Square, has been elegantly stripped out and white-cubed. If the exterior is redolent of the past power of empire (the building was once home to the Parachute Regiment and the SAS) the minimalist interior, and the adjacent shopping centre, are ready for new world orders, a metaphor Saatchi hammers home with typical bluntness in the crowd-pleaser of his opening show. Sun Yuan and Peng Yu's Old Person's Home (2007) is a perfect Saatchi headline act, in which ancient waxwork world leaders, strapped into electric wheelchairs and confined to the basement near the gallery cloakroom, bump and grind in eternal, pointless, diplomatic dodgems.

You can almost feel the irrepressible glee on the collector's face when this idea was conceived, and you would have to have a pretty thick shell of cynicism not to share a little in his pride and joy. Ostentatiously reclusive as ever, he did not attend the opening of his gallery, but his domestic goddess was there for the photo ops, glamming it up with the dummies in the basement.

This, of course, is not the only stunt on view. The work on display is from that vaunted generation of Chinese artists not alive for the Cultural Revolution, and toddlers for Tiananmen. They have instead apparently taken to heart Deng Xiaoping's suggestion that "to get rich is glorious" (the only statement of a Chinese Communist Party leader with which Saatchi might concur). To this end, they seem to have conspired collectively to provide Saatchi with exactly what he needs: highly marketable, instantly iconic work that any new-model Chinese billionaire would be happy to make a private folly.

On the principle that people will buy what they know, Saatchi has in effect reconceived China in the style of his bestsellers. There are more derivatives here than on a Hang Seng broker's live monitor. The hyperreal sculptor Ron Mueck, another of Saatchi's protégés, is particularly flattered by imitation. He might be surprised to discover that a version of his memorable ruminative fallen angel has, in the hands of Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, finally hit the deck here.

Other recent shows of Chinese contemporary art in Britain - the V&A's "China Design Now", for example - have concentrated on the attempts to forge a distinctive modern Chinese identity, looking at how traditional calligraphy, say, has been reshaped to reflect the present moment. You will find precious little calligraphy in the Saatchi show. He is interested in instantly recognisable global images, not foreignness, and certainly not too much complexity. If you do not get a Saatchi exhibit at the first hit, wherever you are in the world, you don't get it at all.

This spirit of immediacy in mind, however, you realise there are hardly any duds here. Nothing moves you much, or makes you think too hard, but there is plenty of free entertainment for the eyes. There is a donkey humping a skyscraper, for example. And an enormous turd, six foot across, covered in maggots which, on closer inspection, turn out to be Chapman brothers Airfix men recast as revolutionary guards (Saatchi, Midas manqué, no doubt hugs himself at the idea of turning dung into gold). There is another Ron Mueck rip-off licking the floor clean, and a pair of mocked-up dinosaur skeletons, one with the three heads of Cerberus, the other a monstrous mosquito. School parties will love it.

The Chinese know more than most peoples about revisionist history, and the most memorable pieces gathered here play acute games with the recent past. The photorealist paintings of Shi Xinning place a grinning Mao in places he might have been if things had been different: on Peggy Guggenheim's balcony in Venice, at Yalta beside Churchill and Roosevelt and Stalin. The choices are spot-on for the wikipediac fact-checker: did Mao really appear in the Queen Mum's carriage on the Mall? It's a good piece of laughter and forgetting.

Equally unsettling, in a quiet way, are Zhang Xiaogang's flat portraits of identikit Chinese, half human, half Second Life avatar. Big Family (1995) consists of a mother and two children, the son bathed in a comforting red glow, the daughter fading back to black and white: the embarrassment of the one-child society. Meanwhile, Yue Minjun's gang of pink-flayed coolies - not the only nod in the show to the interchangeable, oriental-looking mannequins of the late Juan Muñoz - gestures westward and is very much having the last laugh. These artists do not forget that the Chinese economic miracle has been built with sweated labour. The most authentic of the monuments to this fact are the ash-painted paddy fields of Zhang Huan, with his great Ash Head (2007), a vast dome of a skull made from spent joss sticks and mounted on a wheeled trolley, the detritus of a meditative culture recast as commercial art object.

The Revolution may continue, but the particular cultural revolution that Charles Saatchi seems to have in mind with this show, and this gallery, is the globalisation of his own brand. An Indian show is promised next (Saatchi will always follow the new money), and then perhaps something from the Middle East: Iranian Damiens, no doubt. In the years since we stopped manufacturing anything, Britart, essentially Saatchi's invention, has become one of our few exportable successes.

As this show tends to prove, its particular sensations - crude, playful, death-obsessed, immediate - can cross continents. The gallery opening is mirrored online by the new Saatchi portal, on which artists from the four corners of the world can share work and ideas and hope to have them turned to gold by the Great Patron. It has a running ticker of global site traffic. At the last count, Saatchi is the 43rd most popular web hit in Chile and the 121st in Saudi Arabia. The futures market may not be looking too bright, but tomorrow may well belong to Charles Saatchi.

Tim Adams is the new art critic of the NS

"The Revolution Continues: New Chinese Art" is at the Saatchi Gallery, King's Road, London SW3, until 18 January 2009. For more details log on to:

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The death of Gucci capitalism