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A China Rent-A-Laowai Story To End All Rent-A-Laowai Stories. Trust Me On This One.

Posted in China Business

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:

Wen Jiabao (温家宝), Chinese Premier

Wen Jiabao (温家宝), Chinese Premier (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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?

  • Billrich

    This must be one of those impromptu visits Wen does from time to time, like “Let’s go to this and this university to have a look see, now.”

  • http://larrysalibra.com/ Larry Salibra

    Entertaining, but less surprising the previous story. The previous rent a laowai story was surprising because the laowai was, seemingly against his protests, posing as a US diplomat…a position many see as one of power and respect…when in fact he’s just a random business guy.  This story is just a university student posing as someone at the university (which he essentially is) repeating a made up story to Wen Jiabao.

    Recent Chinese history is filled with stories of people tricking Beijing.  Mao would visit farms in the countryside where people were dying of famine and the provincial or village level officials would arrange for fake crops to be brought in to trick the Chairman into believing that harvests were bountiful and all was well. That a Laowai nearby happen to be roped into helping to put on a good show for the leaders isn’t surprising at all.  The bigger question is how do you make good decisions governing when surrounded by yes men and without the benefit of independent free press.  I guess that’s where state security comes in.

  • Damjan Denoble

    In the US Governors have big “signing days” with Chinese delegations. American companies who do vaguely China oriented things are trotted out to present their plans for the China market, and then the Chinese delegation signs off on a cooperation between themselves and each company in attendance. The content of the agreements is irrelevant, since they are drafted by the American counterparts, and have little to do with the capabilities of either signee. From time to time you’ll have people who put up press releases from such events touting their multi-million dollar “deal” with a Chinese province.

    I always think to myself whether the American company touting such a deal is aware of how little (no) significance it has. When I’m feeling very cynical, i wonder if they are aware, and are just counting on the fact that the investors they are targeting are not aware. And most often I wonder whether the Chinese delegates were themselves university students or street sweepers living near the airport, who were told a few hours before lift off that they’d be coming to America for a “deal” signing with a few American governors.

    • Josh Justice

      ya of course it’s all for face, just like when Joe Biden took credit for American companies signing deals last year when Wen came to the USA, he had nothing to do with it, it’s just a show

  • Eillen Kai

    What’s the point of these stories? Foreigners get to meet with Chinese politicians all the time. This chap was in the right place at the right time and got roped in. Its normal, nothing new and no big deal.

    • Josh Justice

      except it is one of the most powerful people in China, I think the fact that there was barely any security was rather odd.

    • Supercuz42

      I think the main point is that in China the impression is what really counts i.e. face value. The west looks to discredit politicians and other people publicly who we feel have been dishonest or corrupt.

  • http://twitter.com/SteveLaudig SteveLaudig

    Let’s state the essentials of the phenomenon: Command performance; Last minute recruitment to perform; no prior knowledge of the event; no prior experience with the subject upon which one ‘performed’; seemingly important performance [though consider that maybe it's just a 'show'] ; no ‘debriefing’ after the performance; only qualification “English”. Happens on a small scale regularly, in my experience, giving life an impromptu charm while getting me to pay attention to the “near future” and staying mentally flexible. Rather like being in an audience with a roving spotlight that randomly sweeps around the room, then suddenly stopping on you [and you not even knowing you were in the audience and there was a spotlight roving] and the next thing is that you are being escorted to the stage to give a performance having read the script while walking to the stage. I’ve been involved in partisan ‘politics’ in the u.s. at the triple A level and this phenomenon isn’t entirely uncommon there. My opinion is that it is in the nature of having a ‘political’ officer somewhere in [or parasited onto] the chains [intentional plural] of command who suddenly looks up from his [invariably a male it seems] ashtray and tea cup and getting focused on what will be happening in the very near future. it is in nature of having a political party involved in addition to a regular bureaucracy. Lots of ‘fifth’ wheels in the structure plus the seeming lack of someone willing to say “That is a really dumb idea. Let’s not do it.” But that’s just ‘speculatin’ about a hypothesis, I don’ really know nutthin.’ [The Chief in "Miller's Crossing"]

  • bystander

    I don’t get why this story is surprising.  Are you surprised because of the laowai part or because of all the fakery?  Fakery is the bread and butter of existence here, and, well, laowais are a staple item of fakery, like a stooge in the old con man days in the U.S.  If things go to sh*t then you can always say that the laowai was the fake.

  • http://twitter.com/KenTenTen Kenneth F Jones

    So, he gave face to the school, but what was the return? Was it really Rent A Laowai? Might just have been Give Away Time for the Golden-haired. I say there’s value here. Trade on it.

  • jcyin

    “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? ”

    Shows how democratic and people based the Chinese premier is. If this was any other country, as the e-mailer said, there would’ve been massive screening and security checks for “safety” reasons. As if everyone had a grudge against which ever politician it was. 

    This should refute what people say all the time that the CCP is an authoritarian hated party with Chinese out to hunt them down. If it were the case premier Wen wouldn’t even show up to this event and much less with such casual security. 

    • Supercuz42

      Aside from Wen, there isn’t a lot of love for the party from what I’ve seen and heard from Chinese friends. Since the Sichuan earthquake he’s a rockstar though :)

      • http://xiaochensu.blogspot.com/ Xiaochen Su

        rockstar enouh that security is absolutely unnecessary eh?

    • Therunningman

      Well then, China should have no problem democratizing the internet.  Wake me then.

  • Therunningman

    What isn’t farcical where China’s concerned? Shorter list.

  • Xavier

    Chinese improvisation at its best, or how to organize in 60 minutes a big meeting and party with Vice Premier showing up, and no one knowing anything about the topic. I love this story !

  • blueflavored

    I believe it! I almost got to give a business presentation to a major player from the fashion industry who was part of the entourage of Belgian royalty visiting China after interning at a design company part time for two months! (They cancelled on us, unfortunately, would’ve been a cool story!)