Friday 30 March 2012

Bo, Bo black sheep

Bo Xilai has been sacked and that makes my wife right 17 years ago when she predicted this.
That I'm married to my wife ("Mrs Battle") and that I have with her a son, and that we had a business we sold back in 2006 just before the GFC, and that as a result of that sale I can now relax in comfortable retirement, all this is due to Bo Xilai, the now disgraced ex-head of Chongqing in China.
Here's how it went down:
In 1995 I was head of Austrade's East Asia division, the Australian Trade Commission.
Our head of China operations (I'll just call him "Al") suggested that we get out in the provinces, that we establish "outrigger offices", to steal a march on other countries.  I agreed, and supported his suggestion for an Australia-China Forum in Dalian, the capital of Liaoning province of NE China. At the time, Bo Xilai was Mayor of Dalian.
So we had a couple of hundred participants in this "Aus-China" Forum in Dalian, and an Aussie Trade Minister attended, Labor Minister Bob McMullen.
The day of the Forum dawned bright and sunny, clear, a bright autumn day in NE China.
The lunch was a couple of hundred business people from Liaoning and Oz. Seated at 10-per-table round tables in a large room in a ritzy suburb of Dalian.  The army band played as we arrived for lunch.  Bright red and gold brocade.
I was seated at the head table, with Bo Xilai and Bob McMullen, seated next to Bob, on his right, he on the  right of Bo.
Sometime into the meal, Al approached me.  He said that there was a woman who was pressing hard to see Bo; her company needed to talk to him about a gold extraction deal they were developing.
I said fine, let's go meet her. I made my excuses to Bo and Bob.
Al led me through the throngs of tables, bouncing, as he did so, from one round table to the other like the silver ball in a pinball machine, greeted here, hailed there, a popular lad.
Till we got to the table of the lady.  She was sitting with her boss, Malcolm Turnbull, founder and managing  partner of a well-known Aussie Investment Bank, she being a senior partner in the firm.
They'd been trying to meet Bo Xilai for about five days at that stage, with no success.  I said that I could arrange a stand-up meeting there and then.  I went back to the head table, checked with Bob first for courtesy and agreed with Bo that he would meet the lady. They met, the issue was outlined and a further meeting was arranged with Bo later that day, and a further meeting with his senior direct reports in the morning.
That done, we had a celebratory drink that evening. We chatted, we hooked up, we married, had our son, set up our business, which we sold just before the GFC, and so I'm happily retired in Hong Kong.
All because of Bo.
The next day we hosted a return luncheon banquet for Bo, his senior officials and the Australian business people.  I gave the main speech in Chinese.  Talking of the opening of the Austrade "outrigger office" I decided to try out a bit of a joke.  Dangerous, I knew, but I'd give it a go.  It was a pun on "Aodaliya" (澳大利 which is the word for Australia) and "Aodaliyi" (澳大利益, the only difference, in English, is the "i" at the end), which can be read as "for the mutual benefit of Australia and Dalian". So, I said in the speech, we were here in Dalian opening the office not only from "Aodaliya", we also wanted it to strengthen "Aodaliyi", pause, then raucous laughter and applause, not polite, but genuinely delighted -- so it went off well. Corny I know, but fun.When I sat down, Bo made a point of telling me what a great speech and "wonderful joke"... [added 23 Aug 2013]
At the time, I'd been mightily impressed with Bo, his charisma and the way he came across as a "western style" politician.
But that's exactly why he wouldn't go to the top, said my wife. In addition, he's a Leftist-Nationalist.
And indeed it's those two characteristics that have brought him down.
Plus some pretty horrid corruption, torture and imprisonment of political and business rivals: lots coming out in Chinese and now foreign media. I won't link to anything here; there's heaps in any Google search.
But to conclude: I'll always have a bit of a soft-spot for Bo.  By making himself difficult for the "average" foreigner to meet, and having to rely on a "senior Australian bureaucrat" (aka your humble correspondent) he directly led to my meeting my wife and all the changes in my life (and hers...) which resulted.
I don't think we'll see him back.
Most people say that his downfall is a blow to "Leftists" in China, and that's true.  I remember being startled when he instituted the "Red Songs" campaign in Chongqing.  But not all he did was silly. "Sending down" 300,000 party and government cadres to the country to live and work with peasants, is certainly a Maoist concept, but not at all bad.  When I studied Chinese in Peking in the seventies, we did the same, and it's the part of my studies I remember the best.  Even Xi Jinping, the leader in waiting of China, recalls his time in the country as being an important formative experience for him.