China Hands can be awful bores at the best of times, the China Brain team included. Here’s a quick guide for those of you who come across one at a dinner party, or more likely, propping up the bar of an unwholesome establishment, desperately hoping to engage someone in a deep, philosophical conversation.
First things first – the basics: Be aware, of course, that if a China Hand is found outside of their comfort zone – for some that is the 6th Ring road of Beijing, for others just China in general - they will undoubtedly be feeling nervous and uncomfortable that they can’t hold court on the Middle Kingdom. If the conversation is ranging from, for instance, the upcoming London mayoral and US elections, to the continuing downfall of Tiger Woods, or even to what baby stroller to purchase for a new arrival, the China Hand will be pretending to listen. He or she may even utter the odd word, but rest assured, the Hand is simply waiting.
What is the Hand waiting for you may ask? They are waiting to hear the key words that will allow them to demonstrate their cavernous knowledge of what is of course the most important country in the world at the most important moment (since the last most important moment) in its very, very long history. These words are too numerous to list in full here but obvious examples are of course ‘China’, ‘Beijing’, ‘Communist’ (be careful when discussing Ken Livingstone), and somewhat mysteriously to those not in the know, ‘Hu’, ‘Wen’ and ‘Xi’. By simply avoiding the key words, you may stave off any China Hand’s attempts to wade into the conversation for a little while.
Basic deflection will only last so long. At some point, the China Hand may catch you unaware or the conversation may naturally move towards the most populous country in the world, which as you may be aware is soon going to be the biggest economy in the world. The very fact that China is so very important now means that the China Hand’s ability to link China to almost anything is assured.
For instance: You: ‘Who do you think will win the London mayoral election?’ China Hand ‘Well I’m not too sure, seeing as I actually live in Beijing, but whoever does win it will be making a beeline straight for the Chinese over there as the City wants to become the global centre for trading the Renminbi”. Or, You: “What do you make of Tiger’s shambolic behavior in the US Masters?” China Hand : “Well I’m not that into golf, but I did hear that in China, they were mystified by his fall from grace, because your success over there is kind of measured by the number of mistresses you have”.
At this point, it’s highly likely that you cannot avoid asking the China Hand a bit more about what he or she does in China and this is the point where you have a key decision to make.
Option A is you pretend (or not as the case may be) that you know little or nothing about China and are therefore ready to be ‘(re)educated’ by the great sage before you. This is the path of least resistance and will probably lead to around 20 minutes of listening to the China Hand about what life is ‘really like’ in China, no doubt helping you to understand that the Chinese are not going to take over the world quite yet and that yes, the pollution really is as bad as they say. But why would you want to be anywhere else right now as it’s currently the most important place in the world, the opportunities are endless and no, Mandarin really isn’t quite as hard as everyone says it is, blah blah blah.
Option A is safe and easy, but let’s be honest, why not spice things up a little? Here again, you have two options, as you can be sure that whatever you do say, the China Hand will disagree with you. Your first option is to say that you think that China’s rise has been overplayed and it’s all going to come crashing down pretty soon. As economic growth slows and social instability rises, the Party will no longer be able to keep control of all the different emotions and desires that exist within a very tightly controlled society. If you throw in the names Gordon Chang and Minxin Pei (or better yet, Pei Minxin as he would be known in China), that will undoubtedly impress. A China Hand would rarely completely agree with their particularly doom laden predictions, which incidentally have been wheeled out again recently after the rumours of a new schism at the heart of the Communist Party. That is unless of course you’re actually having dinner with Mr. Chang or Mr. Pei.
Option B is to say that we all might as well just give up now because China is going to take over the world soon anyway. It’s buying up our companies on the cheap, it’s grabbing whole swathes of Africa, its military is expanding at an alarming rate, alongside it’s confidence in diplomatic circles. You could even throw in the fact that it’s going to smash all records of gold medal hauls at the London Olympics with its platoon of 9 year old gymnasts. This will probably force the China Hand into a slight corner, where he will feel duty bound to point out some of the frailties that still exist within China: continued growth is by no means guaranteed, the US still holds the dominant position by a very long way in terms of military power, innovation and entrepreneurship, and they promised not to do that thing with the 9 year olds again so don’t worry too much.
Your final option is what we call the social hand grenade. You turn to the China Hand and tell him or her in no uncertain terms, that you find Brazil a far more interesting, exciting, enticing topic of conversation. The China Hand will look stunned, shocked and perhaps a little bit hurt -- before responding with, “Did you know who Brazil’s largest trading partner is these days?”