Posted by: Sam Olsen | October 24, 2011

Party Time, Beijing Style

My blogs are getting shunted back due to Sam’s prolific writing and the Chinese firewall.  So you get a potted tale of my time at work in Beijing 3-5 days later.

Thursday morning came dank and foggy, the air heavy and yellow outside our hotel room.  Fortified by the vast Peninsula buffet breakfast, I awaited collection by Nicole, a Chinese colleague who had relocated from the London office some months earlier.  She was running late, and when she arrived, explained that this was because some big party member (irrelevant who, to her), had decided to close a couple of roads that morning. There is never any prior warning of this, naturally, for security reasons. Just makes life for the average Beijing-er that bit more difficult. We set off, not in a taxi, but with Nicole’s driver.  She told me how, since arriving back in China, she had applied for a car ownership permit each month, but failed to get one.  Instead, she hired this chap plus his wheels for about GBP 500 a month, petrol included, to drive her to and from work each day which can be over an hour’s journey. And taxis are hard to come by in Beijing as you may already have read.

Nicole can only live and work in Beijing now. Despite being a Chinese national, she is rather disadvantaged compared to if we were to move to China. In order to be registered on any kind of government system, social security, tax, medical benefits etc., one needs a ‘family pass’ which is restricted to one city only.  Getting this, and the car permit, ‘for people like us’ as she described herself and no doubt the rising mass of middle classes, is very difficult.   Why, I asked? She was almost incredulous that I didn’t get it; ‘because I’m not in the Party!’ she exclaimed. 

The office is located in the CBD. This was not my idea of a CBD; it was more of a building site. There were very few facilities of any kind in sight. The building stands opposite two others, one known as “pair of shorts building” to the taxi drivers, thanks to its appearance, and one that was a burnt-out shell of its former self for some reason I couldn’t quite gather. My first meeting was with a senior female banker. She was very friendly and interesting to talk to. I can’t really go into many details, save to say that when one is trying to compete where the largest four players are the “preferred” bankers to the largest industries in the country, and we are one of three large foreign banks, it’s kind of a tough playing field! At the end of the meeting I asked about life in Beijing. And then asked if she was originally from there. Uh-oh. As you may also have previously read here, it is a sensitive point if one accuses a HK-er of being Mainland Chinese. And indeed, she was from HK! 

Skipping along to Saturday, the day of the conference. To be precise, the 7th Annual China Financial Risk Managers’ Forum. (The corporate affairs people at work asked me if the media would be present. I guessed that the answer was no, it’s hardly NewsCorp’s annual meeting, is it?!).  The location, the Xijiao Hotel, is in an area called Haidian and a 40 minute drive from the centre of town. It reminded me of Serbia. Functional, sparse, concrete, smoky.  For the first time in three days I had to go outside for fresh air. The delegates puffed away in the waiting area, drinking luminous orange liquid from plastic cups. Soon, it was time for us to being our session. The audience numbered around 70, I think. I whisked through my presentation trying to force myself to slow down, but kept being put off by the frantic nodding of one lady in the front row and the nodding off of her colleague a few rows back. They clapped politely at the end. Then followed an hour of presentations from Chinese-speakers on my specialist subject. I could follow the graphs, just about. And the nodding lady had kindly included lots of pictures (lighthouse in storm – gives us a clue!, workman with hammer – can we fix it?), so I watched out for these and wondered if I had to listen to Mandarin permanently, forever, would it one day just start to make sense? 

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