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Reforming On The Road: Chinese Junkets

Oct
2
2006

The call from Zhao Hong could not have come at a busier time.

“Hi. I’m down in Guangdong. I have a favor to ask…”

Zhao set my benchmark for a Chinese renaissance man. Like some of China’s new capitalists, he trained as a military cadet. In the late 1980′s, he left the intelligence service of the People’s Liberation Army to pursue his real passions: ancient Chinese bronze ware, and carved stone Buddhas. Over the years, he’d run a translation company, curated police exhibits, and picked up a law degree. At the Ministry of Culture, he aided in the immensely cathartic repatriation – front-page news in 2003 – of a bronze pig’s head swiped from the Summer Palace during the second Opium War.

Zhao’s last real job was as a gallerist for Beijing’s first property developer to create contemporary art spaces within his projects. Then in 2004, burned out, Zhao ditched the city to start a farm. His cash crop: the Luhua Chicken, a near-endangered species of indigenous free-range bird, known for the teal plumage of their tails and the golden yolk of their lay. From an abandoned hillock outside Beijing, Zhao sold breeding Luhua hens to other high-end raisers around the country via his web site, china-chicken.com. Until bird flu hit, that is, and Zhao’s live fowl trade was grounded.

Now, Zhao informed me over the phone, he was helping a Guangdong real estate firm promote luxury apartments and villas. To do it, they were running a junket.

“Next week in Foshan, our company is organizing a forum to promote the protection China’s cultural relics,” he told me. “We’re going to have relics bureau officials, experts and celebrities. The entire Guangdong press corps will be represented. I think you can discuss the American experience.”

Instinctively, I tried to weasel my out of going. “But Zhao Hong, I’ve been living in China. Does America even have cultural relics? What do I know about China’s?”

His voice began to flutter in a breathy falsetto, and I could tell he was about to shame me in the Chinese way. “Come on, Xiao Qiao (my nickname in Chinese – “Little Jon”). Just make up a couple sentences. (in English) No pe-rob-bel-lem.” By which he meant to say: as long I got a foreigner speaking Chinese, it won’t matter what he says.

“We’ll pay your entire trip. What do you say, Xiao Qiao, can you help a friend?”

I consented, then began beating myself up for doing so. Based on prior experience, I had a sneaking suspicion I would not be helping to save the world. The last junket I’d attended, in the capacity of a “Chinese reporter” for an English-language rag, was the Mediterranean Gastronomy Conference. It was hosted on the banks Lago Maggiore in northern Italy by the International Olive Oil Council (the IOOC). For four days and four nights, we roughed it at a 100-year-old converted mansion while chefs from Greece, Spain and Tunisia performed for our palettes. Between meals, from the carb-induced mush of my memory, I recall nutritionists giving PowerPoint presentations about poly-unsaturated fat. I went home and did the reporter’s dirty deed, eking out an article on what seemed to be the prime role of olive oil in Chinese society at the time: skin toner (mainly for women’s legs).

That’s not to say some junkets aren’t more messianic in their intentions – the “World” Economic forum in Davos, for instance. Many in China aren’t, though – anything but.

Still, I sensed the junket may hold a certain transformative potential in China. In a society that has come so far economically and comparatively little politically, social progress almost has to come with a price-tag attached. These days, indeed, a small but growing part of the price is being paid in the form of the weekend junket.

Call it noblesse oblige. The junkets on offer in today China, broadly classified, are bankrolled by private companies, state-owned enterprises, academic institutions and even government organs. They bring together officials, entrepreneurs, academics, and artists; members of the media; and some sort of guest-star or guru. Junkets tend to market themselves toward the upwardly mobile urban middle class – chief legitimators of the Communist Party’s “reform and opening”. They account for a good chunk of the untaxed waikuai – cash on the side – that scholars and journalists live off. And while the junkets promote a specific individual’s or set of individuals’ interests, sometimes they do so under the aegis of a higher cause.

These include countless advertorial art happenings – some edgy, others awful – by which trendy developers in big cities are bestowing patronage on China’s once-forsaken avant-garde and literati. There are also media conferences, and more recently, blogger competitions.

An intimately related trend is the bustling academic talk circuit – perhaps the junket’s most critical contribution. In March, for example, on the eve of China’s annual legislative session, a forum took place at a resort in Beijing’s Western Hills. Sponsored by a think tank of veteran reformist scholars with indeterminate ties to the current Communist Party leadership, the so-called “New West Hill Meeting” was convened in secret. The prescribed purpose was to break a fever of ideological debate over a rather underwhelming new draft law to protect private property. But the prominent scholars in attendance ended up plumbing the depths of China’s political problems. They tugged at the systematic roots of all that roils China’s peasants and workers.

Still, the question could be raised: what did these guys know of hardship anymore? Not since imperial times have the living conditions of the peasantry and the proletariat lagged so far behind China’s elite intellectuals. Despite their puritan motives, most of the “West Hill” attendees, it was known, make six-to-seven figure sums in Renminbi a year from speaking engagements alone. That’s equivalent to tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. Soon after minutes of the meeting were leaked on the Internet, sure enough, news of it triggered a fresh ideological backlash. China’s Left, Old and New, were quick to condemn this talk shop of “bourgeois liberalism.”

And so the evidence before me kept circling back to the question: junkets in China, good or bad?

On the one hand, even in the case of such high-level consultative conferences, there was that hint of the spiritual cooptation of the intellectuals by Red capitalists and cushy state think tanks – perhaps a soft form of academic corruption, in some instances.

But on the other hand, outside of the on-line world, this was the grandest venue for the free exchange of ideas going in China at the moment – a major advance from dinner table conversations in private homes. And oftentimes, the conference room was more buffered from speech police than the chatrooms.

Shortly after the West Hill meeting, I asked Peking University law professor He Weifang, easily the most liberal among the liberals there, what he thought of the social significance of the talk circuit. Sure, one could always make the point about the yawning gap in “class consciousness,” he said. “But in China, this is good overall. It boosts the influence of the intellectuals.” He personally makes about 50,000 yuan a year from his appearances.

It was with all this in mind that I flew down to Canton for my first Chinese junket, hoping to do my part to change China.

Editor’s Note: Next week,Jonathan writes in from the road.

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