The other day, in “China: Where Nothing Is Ever Quite What It Seems. The High End Rent-A-Laowai Edition,” we wrote about a friend-client/everyday businessperson who had been “rented out” as a United States diplomat for a big Chinese banquet/occasion. My favorite comment on that post was from Paul Gillis, who said “I guess I have been here too long. That story seems completely normal to me.” I am guessing even Paul will be surprised by this next one. I sure was.
So right after we did our “High End Rent-A-Laowai” story, I received an e-mail from someone I have known and trusted for years. This e-mail concluded by requesting that “If you were to quote me here, please obscure the details and don’t post pictures.” We are going to tell this bizarre rent-a-laowai story while honoring that request. Here is the e-mail, modified for obfuscation purposes:
I read your latest post with amusement, as I felt like I had a mirror experience. One day, I arrived at ____ Chinese university campus to find it all abuzz. Large crowds were waiting at each major building because Premier Wen would soon be stopping by. I was asked to go to the library. That’s where the show will go down. When I got there, it was T minus one hour.
A university official came over to me and asked if she could ask me for favor: would I speak to Premier Wen about one of the University’s projects. Say again? Yes, the University would like to start some big joint venture with “a leading Chinese research institute” regarding _______.
To this day I don’t know exactly what that means, but I had exactly one hour to prepare a pitch to Premier Wen and I was going to do it. I was supposed to talk about supposed research the University had been doing in this area – which I pretty much knew to be a vast exaggeration, and about a supposed joint venture it was undertaking with an unnamed major Chinese research institute with a supposed prototype product coming out within 3 months, all of which I was pretty certain could not be true.
I found the situation to be so amusing/nerve wracking though that I didn’t hesitate much to agree. Remember, I was just a laowai university student. Questions like ‘why are not the people doing the research presenting this’ were irrelevant at this point. None of us were kidding ourselves here.
Then, an hour late (and by this point I was hardly even expecting him to show up) Premier Wen’s bus arrived. A bunch of security guys rushed into the room filled with about 300 staff and students, none of whom had been screened or in any way pre-selected. The security guys asked where Wen should be seated. The university officials point to the chair opposite me and, again without any further measures to ensure Premier Wen’s security, he entered the room just a few steps behind, greeted like a superstar with cries of his nickname ‘Wen Baobao’.
I ended up giving a 10 minute pitch, mostly making it up as I went along and sitting opposite Premier Wen for another hour of Q&A.
Do I feel guilty for this blatant dishonesty? Not one bit. This was not about me. I just happened to be at the right place at the right time.
I have so many questions though from this encounter. For one, how could it be decided on a whim who would be talking to the Premier of China? How could it possibly be that there was no screening of anyone in the room? And apparently no pre-screening of the venue either? How could it be that Premier Wen had no prior notice as to the topic to be discussed?
It all seems so surreal that I feel compelled to attach pictures and videos below.
Okay people, and here’s the kicker. The email contained two pictures of my e-mailer sitting right across from Premier Wen, with all sorts of university looking people and cameras all around. Could they have been re-touched? Yes, but why would this person bother. The email also contained a link to an online video site where there was a video of the whole affair, starting with Premier Wen’s entrance and including at least five minutes of my e-mailer talking while sitting right across from the Premier. This video had definitely been online a lot longer than a few days as it had thousands of “likes” and about half as many “dislikes.”
Is this story unbelievable? Yes it is. Do I believe it? Yes, I most certainly do.
What do you think?