My 15 Seconds
I attended a conference in Beijing in 2003 sponsored by the Chinese government. While in China, I also met with several Chinese officials, including the new Premier, Wen Jiabao, officials of the central bank, and the agency in charge of maintaining the exchange rate of the Yuan, or Renminbi.
In several television interviews I was asked about the dollar/yuan peg and whether it was appropriate. I tiptoed through the tulips on the delicate aspects of that question, focusing instead on the basic dilemma.
The dilemma was that China was pegging its currency to the dollar, which was sinking. While a depreciating dollar might help offset economic weakness in the United States, the sinking yuan tied to it certainly seemed inappropriate for the booming Chinese economy.
Diplomacy became trickier when I was leaving the exchange pegging agency and was asked to sign their guest book. The book was huge and they opened up an entire blank page for me. About all I was sure of was that a large handwriting font was called for. I have (or had) a photograph of that scene that I’ve looked for unsuccessfully for months. It shows exactly what I wrote. The best I can remember, it was something like this:“Congratulations to the Chinese people for the rapid growth of their economy. May the Yuan and the Dollar remain strong together.”
Now that I’ve guessed at it, I’ll probably find the picture tomorrow.
A highlight of that visit was the audience some of us had with the Premier in the Great Hall of the People. He went around the circle and asked some of us for any advice we had to give him. A distinguished scholar sitting next to me, a Harvard professor I believe, shared his concern about so many single male Chinese coming off the farm into the cities to work without the stability offered by family. He urged the Premier to allow wives to come too lest the husbands succumb to the temptations of the city.
I was called on next. My contribution was that I thought the professor had been watching too many episodes of “Sex in the City.”
On that visit, I reached the conclusion all over again that we don’t want a land war with China. While I was walking up a long stretch of the Great Wall, what seemed like millions of Chinese soldiers in ill-fitting green uniforms were walking down. I felt like a salmon swimming upstream. The soldiers were apparently on holiday. While they did not look menacing, they did look infinite in their numbers. They just kept coming and coming. I thought of what it must have been like during the Korean War when the Chinese poured across the 38th parallel.
On a lighter note, there were two mysteries I never was able to solve during that trip. One was, when do you use Yuan and when do you use Renminbi for the Chinese currency. I had it explained to me several times, but the explanations were all different. I never got it.
The other, greater, mystery was this: Why did they change the name of the city from Peking to Beijing but didn’t change the Peking duck to Beijing duck?
Either way, they are highly overrated.