Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Lunch with the Pentagon

To the American Club, high up in Exchange Square, Hong Kong, for one of the more surreal lunches of my life.
A week prior the naval attaché from the US consul general is on the blower. “Hey Sam, long time…,” he intones. “Say, I got someone coming in Washington and they’re keen to know more about China’s merchant fleet. How does lunch on the 24th grab ya?”
Intrigued, I could hardly refuse but I added a caveat, asking that I bring along an American known to all who have worked with him simply as The Agent, much like Harvey Keitel was known as The Wolf in Pulp Fiction. The Agent grew up in Conneticut, attended spook central university aka Johns Hopkins where one Dr P Wolfowitz was his dean. Thereafter, The Agent worked “for the government” in DC for a couple of years before heading to East Asia where after a spell with Dow Jones he joined a shipping newspaper, gaining access to highly sought after intelligence targets such as shipyards and ports. The Agent was an asset, and if I was to powwow with goons from Washington I wanted him on my side.
We met with the attaché on the 37th floor and were introduced so a young, crew cut, earnest fella from the Department of Defense. What ensued I look back on as frightening in hindsight at how little knowledge or understanding the world’s current superpower has of its heir to the throne, China. ‘John’ from the DoD was a China specialist and he wanted to know about Beijing’s naval capabilities.
While I knawed on a roll of soft bread, keenly anticipating the arrival of my spare ribs, John cut to the chase and asked his most important question; the moment where we sang for our luncheon. In a veiled reference to the vexed issue of Taiwan, he set forth his poser. “Let’s say,” he mused, “there was an ‘incident’ in the East China Sea,” he said, adding inverted commas with a manual flourish like Dr Evil might to the word ‘incident’. “Just how quickly could the government commandeer the fleets that are quasi-state owned?” A malicious mischieovness overtook me and I nodded at The Agent to say I’d answer this one. “Well, ‘John’,” I replied deadpan, “If, indeed, there was an ‘incident’ [yes, dear reader, I couldn’t help myself and manually added inverted commas too] in the East China Sea then by the time you woke up the next day, they would have strung all the Chinese tankers up from Xiamen to form a landbridge across to Kaohsiung.” There was a pause, both the naval attaché and the man from the Pentagon taking on the ramifications of what I had said. They mulled it for a while, and said “how interesting”. Lunch careened on with countless moments where I had to stop myself from gasping at the DC guy’s ignorance as a China specialist. The Agent and I made our farewells, got in the lift and boomed out laughter, each of us thinking that night in some darkened basement of the Pentagon, war simulations involving hundreds of Chinese tankers may well be taking place.

Enter the damp squib

Looking back, it was a momentous occasion for the Asia Scribbler. My first ever trip to mainland China. It was 2000 and I had been drafted in, because the editor felt Guangzhou, formerly Canton, was not a significantly flashy enough destination for him. I, on the other hand, was not fussy. The chance to travel anywhere was and still is like a red rag.
I was running late due to some late production issues on the magazine I was working for. It was my first foreign trip with the company I had joined and I was excited. Hopping on the train at Hung Hom I made the two hour train to Guangzhou. It moved slowly through Hong Kong, like the southeast trains in the UK do though London, only to pick up speed across the border. Sitting on the top floor of a double-tiered carriage the scenery that greeted me on passing through Shenzhen into the no man’s land up to Guangzhou, I admit deeply depressed me. Endless factories, tiled housing complexes, dark grey, heavy skies, lacerations of polluted deltas, blasted hillsides; Guangdong province might be leading China economically, but at what cost, I wondered peering out the window as the heavens opened up.
Guangzhou East train station is a maelstrom for the unititiated such as yours truly seven years ago. Move with the tidal flow of humanity or risk being trampled upon. Look fast for signs, and elbow your way to the necessary exit point, this vast monolith of a station in the heart of the central business district is dull on the eye, quick on the heart and heavy on the irritation if the queues don’t work in your favour.
The rain was pouring so hard it made a platoon of Gatling gun firing maniacs sound like a monastery. I was late. The taxi queue was long. The rain brought little relief to the humidity. My suit was damp.
A Volkswagen finally drew up. I jumped in the front seat. My right foot immediately was immersed to the ankle in rainwater. The car had one hell of a leak. Late to the Garden Hotel and the largest ballroom I have ever seen for a Singapore government function I waded in. My right foot left an imprint wherever I stepped. Quite an entrance on my first visit to China.