left corner left corner
China Daily Website  

Time and place with premier

Updated: 2014-01-23 07:22
( China Daily)

First person | Ravi Shankar Narasimhan

Editor's note: Ravi Shankar Narasimhan, executive editor of China Daily's overseas editions, was one of 70-plus foreign experts invited to the Great Hall of the People on Tuesday for a symposium and a Chinese New Year dinner with Premier Li Keqiang and senior State leaders.

If you ever wondered how official events in China are run like clockwork, I can offer some insight: It takes a lot of time and plenty of attention to detail.

The three buses carrying the 70-odd foreign experts from SAFEA - the easy-sounding acronym for the State Administration of Foreign Experts Affairs - were scheduled to leave the building at 2:45 pm for the 5 pm symposium with Premier Li Keqiang and other senior State leaders. I thought it was a bit too early but our handlers said it was better safe than...

As we crawled through the heavy mid-afternoon Beijing traffic, the abundant caution made sense but even then we arrived a few minutes earlier than scheduled. We would be admitted to the Great Hall of the People only at 4 pm, so we sat in the bus in a side lane.

At the appointed time, the gates and doors were thrown open with a flamboyance seen only in places with a sense of grandeur.

Security was tight but the checks were efficient and quick. Airport security guards could take a cue from here.

There was ample time to locate our designated seats in two grand halls: one for the symposium and the other for the dinner.

As we checked out who was sitting where, we noticed that "Isabel Crook" would be seated next to the premier, and a murmur went around: Who's she?

A little checking around the ban on phones and tablets meant we had to rely on memory and my recollection of stories published in China Daily for the answer: A 98-year-old Canadian anthropologist who did pioneering work in China, taught at Beijing Foreign Studies University and who has spent about 75 years of her life in China.

That's culture, said Volodymyr S. Kovalenko, professor at National Technical University of Ukraine, who has been visiting China for 40 years, admiringly. Wondering if the rest of the world was losing its traditional moorings, he politely inquired about India - my country.

I tried to assure him that despite centuries of invasions we have tried to sort of -keep our sense of culture intact. But I had to admit that the sense of reverence that the Chinese and their leaders have for foreigners who have helped their country is unmatched.

I offered Kovalenko the example of almost every Chinese leader visiting India making it a point to meet the family of Dwaraknath Kotnis (known in Chinese as Ke Dihua) a doctor whose heroic deeds of saving Chinese soldiers during the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1937-45) being the stuff of legend in China and known to every student. Li met members of the family in Mumbai last year on his first visit to India as premier.

Now that we had cracked the Crook code, I was sharing the story with the energetic Alistair Michie, group business and government adviser of Newland International Communication Group and a consultant to SAFEA, when a buzz went around the room: Please take your seats, the premier is coming.

It was a good 15 minutes before the 5 pm start, but we all obediently went back to our seats, and waited, murmuring to neighbors.

On the dot at 5 pm, the premier walked in briskly. But there was nothing brusque as he greeted the 20-odd people closest to his seat, held their hand for just that second longer and looked them in the eye ... it made us feel important.

It's well known that the premier is fluent in English and that's the language in which he greeted every foreigner. His opening remarks were in Chinese, however. The appreciation of the Chinese government and its people for the foreigners' contributions to the country's development. "We would like you to see China as a second home," he said.

It was something some of the guests informally discussed earlier. Not many world leaders, especially those of major economies, even acknowledge the role of foreigners, let alone be so effusive in praise, but Chinese leaders routinely do. And, deserved or not, we felt good.

The premier said he came to listen ... and the first to speak was John Thornton, the chairman of the Brookings Institution and legendary figure in the financial world. He made three proposals on how to tackle urbanization.

Then Michie spoke on how high-end services would boost the economy.

It was finally the turn of Peter Poechmueller, chief technical officer at Shandong Sino-chip Semiconductors, who argued passionately about how the semi-conductor industry in China should be developed.

The premier listened closely, made notes and said he wished he could listen to the views of all the foreign experts present but couldn't because of time.

It was nearly 6 pm and the guests were gearing up for dinner: There was some talk earlier on what the government's austerity drive would mean for the menu.

This is where the clockwork went a little awry.

The premier said in his opening remarks that this was the first kind of forum he had attended as premier. He spoke briefly about the Chinese economy's performance last year. The highlights: Economic growth of 7.7 percent, "no easy task" given the huge base of the world's second-largest economy; and 13 million new jobs created the most for several years. He then took most of us by surprise by responding, point by point, to all the suggestions made by the three foreign experts.

Thornton and Michie got more than a nod of appreciation and the premier lauded the "dual personality" of Poechmueller, pointing out that the Austrian called himself Shandong Man, and thanked him for putting the considerations of the Chinese semiconductor industry ahead of his cold.

He thanked everyone.

Suddenly, there was another buzz ... we had to move across the magnificent lobby to the dining hall. After all, the clock was running.

I was honored to be sitting at the "main table" and was directly opposite the premier in the 18-seat arrangement. I had a good vantage point.

Li was expansive, expressive and ebullient. Animated with Thornton, solicitous with Crook.

The dinner courses came with unrelenting time pressure; if you didn't finish in the time set for that course, it would disappear.

Chinese tradition soon started. The premier began by toasting his guests but it was also getting late. Everyone wanted (it appeared) to tell him their life story and he listened attentively.

His aides were getting jittery; it was taking too long. But the premier didn't seem to mind.

Soon he was approaching me, halfway down his table. I got strong hints that I should just clink glasses but when it came to my turn, I couldn't resist.

Without getting into details, let's say I took up a good 30 seconds. The premier then went around toasting all the guests.

I could see he hadn't eaten much, and the whole program ended at exactly 7 pm.

Just like clockwork.

 Time and place with premier

Ravi Shankar, executive editor of China Daily's overseas editions, attends a seminar at the Great Hall of the People on Tuesday. Feng Yongbin / China Daily

(China Daily 01/23/2014 page1)