Northward to Beijing: Our first encounter with Chinese bureaucrats

In their quest to source pig iron from China, the writer and his partner, speak about their first encounter with Chinese government officials. But they were not given access to English newspapers and nor could they contact their folks back in Dubai. This is the fifth part of the series describing the travails faced when setting up an international business in the seventies

Amanda and Lam Hu (I am a little unsure if it was actually Lim Hu) promptly came in few minutes to nine in the morning to collect us. Armed with our passports/photos, we first went to the Chinese office (not an embassy mind you) who looked up our papers and gave us a few, confirming that it was okay to take a flight on the following day to Beijing. The travel agent had also done the required formalities, but we did not want to take any risks.

It may be recalled that China had leased Hong Kong on a 99-year lease to Britain and that was scheduled to expire in the next 15 years or so. However, Chinese government companies, like China Natural Resources, etc, were very much active in Hong Kong.

Once this was confirmed, we had nothing else to do really, except for own plans. Amanda took us to Daimaru, the most popular mall in Hong Kong; a huge multi-storied building, it contained almost every conceivable item that one may wish to buy. It was very crowded and she had a list of items to “buy” for gifts and presents to people we were scheduled to meet in Beijing. She advised us to shop around and return back to a particular location some one hour later. With that, she was gone.

It was amazing place to shop. I still have the ruler I bought (with its plastic cover!) and many other items. When we returned back to the hotel, we had a lot of items to carry, most of which were consumer durables and food stuffs.  Later on, we came to know that these were ‘indented’ by officials Amanda had met earlier and with whom we were scheduled meet for our discussions. These were as simple as Instant Nescafe to biscuits and tea, apart from many others.

The following morning, we were on a flight to Beijing. Vijay a very strict vegetarian, had some tea on the flight but I dared to eat some snack that was given and couple of hours later, landed smoothly in Beijing airport. Photography was strictly prohibited and we were met by an official inside the immigration section, who processed our documents in no time, taking away our luggage tickets. At customs, we opened our suitcases and left it there, as advised by the greeter. We were whisked through and were taken to a coach that went through a good distance (some 30 miles, I suppose) before we reached the hotel. At the reception, we were handed over the room keys, which were already assigned to us, and when we went up, our luggage was already in place. It was unbelievable, but true.

Sooner after our arrival, we went for our lunch and came to know that government offices work from 7am to 3pm at best and that our first meeting would be the following day. 

We could not go out and even to the great Tiananmen Square and the Great Hall of the people. Transport was arranged by the department concerned. We met one lady and a gent on the first day and tried our best to exchange our friendly greetings, etc. Well, on the next day, they were replaced by someone else, though for the first three days, the lady was the same. The driver of the coach, greeter and gent kept changing and when we were in the open area, Amanda whispered that for security reasons people keep changing.  Amanda did the Mandarin Chinese translation on our behalf, and most of the time, both Vijay and myself were simple and silent spectators, until the pig iron composition, melting, etc (all technical that went over my head) were raised.

This was followed by a visit to a steel plant and we saw the ingots in the yard, and those being freshly cast. A lot of discussions took place, amidst cups and cups of tea.

One thing that I forgot to mention was that there was no paper—I mean no English newspaper.  After great persuasion, we were given some cyclostyled A4 size print outs but that carried more news about what is happening in China and hardly anything else, anywhere in the world.  We were totally cut off from any communications with the outside world.

The steel ministry in China was happy that we had come from India for buying their pig iron. Pricing negotiations took a long time; and when it came to specific delivery or shipment commitments, they asked for time to consult the plant and get necessary authorization. We would be happy to resume our negotiations from Monday and suggested that we accept their hospitality for a picnic and go and see the Great Wall of China. Everything already arranged and “we shall pick you up after breakfast by 9am if it is okay with you”. 

At the reception, we were given the picnic packets, marked with our room numbers and with an official guide (sent by their office); we drove for more than one hour. It was nice and green and the countryside lush with rice or wheat fields (I do not recall which), until we came and halted at a place, which looked more like an entrance, with very large engraving in stone, and which was on the wall.  It had some scrips and what surprised me was that I found a few looked like Tamil alphabets; the guide pointed out some others and said they were in “Pali”.  Yes, they looked like Indian in the sense that they could be Sanskrit, but all these were nice to see. Later on we came to know he was a linguist.

We then headed towards the first door to the Great Wall of China, not far from this point. The next one hour or so, we walked up and down, may be a mile or two on the wall. While standing there, I remembered reading somewhere that this was the only man-made site on earth that could be viewed from the moon or space. Immediately, my own mind brushed the thought aside; after all the first live person or animal was Laika, the Russian dog, and it was ridiculous to believe this news item. After all, even if Louis Armstrong had the best telescope in the world, all that he could have perhaps seen is the shape and size of the round planet, and nothing beyond.

When we broke for lunch, both of us had a cheese sandwich, an apple and a bottle of some local soft drink. It was a pleasant trip and we returned back to the hotel, hoping for a big meal with some rice in the evening.

We had hoped to get some news from Dubai at least, but were advised that ‘lines’ were down! We were told, on our return that the minister (actually secretary to the steel ministry, we supposed, or some very senior official) was hosting a dinner in our honour the next day at the prestigious hotel.

For dinner, we had noodles, some fried rice without eggs and lots of salad. We hit the sack early, after a couple of drinks, and tried to plan pricing strategy for our purchase in our mind, as we fell asleep.

(AK Ramdas has worked with the Engineering Export Promotion Council of the ministry of commerce and was associated with various committees of the Council. His international career took him to places like Beirut, Kuwait and Dubai at a time when these were small trading outposts. From being the advisor to exporters, he took over the mantle of a trader, travelled far and wide, and switched over to setting up garment factories and then worked in the US. He can be contacted at [email protected].)

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