inside thoughts on China and beyond

The Oak Wood Room

The Oakwood Room

They came from America, from France, from Germany, from all around the Western world as a matter of fact, and some even from Japan. They were meeting on the 179th floor of the state-of-art skyscraper that was finished only 5 years ago, covering the alleys far below with her constant shadow. For a short while it was the world’s tallest building.

They leased the top five floors. Two exclusive elevators built against the outside wall of the tower with stunning view during the flight, operated just for these top floors. That was status. Top of the top. But since you can’t really meet on five floors at once, only one was transformed into a majestic medieval hall with heavy oak wooden panels covering the three walls. It was the Oak Wood Room, but insiders revered to it as the ‘West’. Bookshelves opposite the large marble-framed fireplace with a fire going that never needed wood, were filled with books no one ever read. A large window that took up the complete outside wall provided sufficient light for the centrally placed, heavy 16-seat long walnut table and small groups of original Chesterfield chairs and a view befitting men such as these. Respected members of the society. Men of wealth.

Men of power. Rare species, so they told themselves. Some had worked to come this far, others were princeling of old reigning families. Their air of superiority and unbridled pride was proof to their belief. Their talk even more. With the world in their hands and presidents in their pockets, classified topics changed as casually as their wives’ gossips by their coiffeurs. From carefully kept-out-of-sight offshore investments in mysterious and unknown but otherwise disputable companies to broadly broadcasted celebrity charity balls benefiting the lowly and pitiful, giving hope to the hopeless –and hope is really all these poor chaps need, isn’t it? From winter homes near the royal families in Davos to summer palaces among the artists and autocrats around Cannes; from the latest of the good old ‘les énarques’ of the French upper-class and the ‘old boys network’ of England’s high society and Yves League of America’s high-flyers and Japan’s exclusive Todai, to future financial and political maneuvers that secure the world; their world at least. And that was exactly what today’s gathering was all about.

Far beneath the West, in the everlasting chilling shadow of the tower, in the dark and dangerous back alley, another meeting was in session. The dusty dim lit bar was now deserted except for a few noisy men sitting among the debris of last night’s party activities. Although the atmosphere was festive, each knew his place and all kept their distance. Like dogs on their guard. Not so long ago, an internal disagreement had lead to the disappearance of one and the demotion of another. But such is life in this Party: if you don’t take risks, you won’t get rich. But if you do take risks, make sure you have the right connections; the right guanxi as it was called by insiders, for else, you won’t have a life. Such was the Party’s game and they all knew it. And their fathers knew it, as did their fathers’ fathers. That’s how they all were able to become men of wealth. Men of power. Rare species, so they told themselves. Some had worked to come this far, others were princeling of old party families. Their air of superiority and unbridled pride was proof to their belief. Their black oversized limousines were statements that needed no words. And words they used little. Money all the more. And much of that was needed now. And that was exactly what today’s gathering was all about.

A shadow was cast over the otherwise sunlit West. The hearth fire that needed no wood now seemed in need of oxygen. Despite the smiles and pretensions, the subtle jokes and controlled laughter, tension filled the room. Everyone knew it, but no one said it. Can one control the world yet loose his own house? Was power than nothing but water held in two hands? Streaming away the harder you squeeze to hold it? Had they not caused companies to bloom and companies to collapse? Their money movements had created continental crises; their donations had directed presidents –no matter the country or color- in their decisions; their network had caused nations to declare war or settle for peace. Civil wars were fought and environmental activists suppressed. Behind a veil of shiny concepts, like ‘representative government’, ‘direct elections’, ‘democracy’, ‘freedom’, ‘capitalism’ ‘free market’, and many more, were the movements that really mattered, or was it?

Finally. Finally, the Phoenix had returned. Be it from the old mythical, but now bankrupt Greece or from the early glory days of the Middle Kingdom, luck had arrived and it was on their side and the Party would rise to desired heights. But no, it wasn’t just luck: it had been 30 years of hard work. The beginning of a new era. How can one not conquer the world after so long leading their own house? Slowly, very slowly, they had built their factories. And from their factories they had made industries. And with their industries they built a world power. And power was finally streaming their way. Like the water in a river: nothing could stop it. They knew one can not hold on it; you must channel it. And that they did. Proletariat comrades were now migrant workers; Party cadres became the new and real CEO’s. Language hadn’t changed, only it’s meaning. Behind a veil of shiny concepts, like ‘family care’, ‘harmonious society’, ‘equal prosperity’, ‘peoples’ security’, and ‘Confucianism’ were the movements that really mattered: 30 years of hard work; building networks; keeping their people in line; stealing technology; creating dependency. In this world, there are no higher moral standards than pursuing one’s own luck. There is no God, and there is no need for a constitution to remind them of this. Everything is permitted if it serves the Party.

And really, were they that much different? They knew they weren’t, if you compared them with the real men in power, those up there. Like them, they were just running a company. Semi-legal at first, but that is changing. A multi segmented company, for sure, but a company nonetheless. And, like all growing companies, it was time to move office. To expend. Out of the dark and hideous alley, where one has to avoid being seen. Now they needed, no, they deserved space that was bigger, more appealing, more honorable and, yes, more in the spotlights. And a space they had found; or rather: their boss had found. The others quickly lined up to agree with his wisdom and promised to come up with the money. It was a bargain -and a statement. They deserved to be seen for what they really are and get the respect and attention they had graved for, for so so long. Their new office offered all that: it was already transformed into a majestic medieval hall with heavy oak wooden panels covering the walls; bookshelves opposite the large marble-framed fireplace with a fire smoldering that never needed wood, were filled with books no one ever read; windows taking up the complete outside wall provided sufficient light for the centrally placed thick 16-seat walnut table and small groups of original Chesterfields and a view befitting men such as themselves. A real bargain and money well spend.

The oak wood room meeting was short. Much shorter than all participants had expected and surely shorter than they had hoped. The outcome was clear: this time around, their money had evaporated. Although the elusion of wealth and power lingered on and will remain for some time more, as after waking up from a beautiful dream when all that remains for a short moment is the vague sensation it gave; the money was gone. The oak wood room had to be sold. The West for sale. But who was left to buy? A smart banker,  senior among them who surely deserving their respect with a remarkable track record that started with the Leman Brothers, had found a buyer and closed the deal. They left the room and went straight for the elevator. One of the two brought them down, uninterrupted and much too fast for their liking, down to earth.

In freshly pressed Armani suits they appeared from the dark alley and entered the tower through the front door and directly headed for the elevators. One of the two brought them directly and without being interrupted to the top 5 floors. Through the thick glass windows they saw the other elevator passing. And inside were, they knew, worthy equals, but no longer superior.

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4 responses

  1. Post script: I know, I know, and for a while I was wondering as well: “Does this column fit in my blog?” Isn’t it too long? But alas, here it is anyway. It may not be about daily life; it is about China and it surely affects our daily life! And in line with my blog’s theme ‘inside thoughts on China and beyond’, this then is the beyond. Does it reflect my -or an- opinion? Hardly, it merely gives my observation, subjective as that may be. To quote Fukuyama in an interview with the German magazine Spiegel, “Our current Western system is really broken in some fundamental ways, but the Chinese system is not going to work either.”

    If there is anything we can learn from the rise and fall of great and not-so-great empires the past, it is mentioned by H.G. Wells, when he wrote: “What had happened to Rome? Various answers are made -a decline in religion, a decline from the virtues of the Roman forefathers, and the like. We, who can look at the problem with a large perspective, can see that what had happened to Rome was “money.” Money had floated the Romans of the firm ground. […] The Roman imagination went wild with the hitherto unknown possibilities of finance.” Is this the USA? Europe? China? History does seems to repeat itself, both in the West and in China. As for China, where a rebirth of the old-and-wise is encouraged to fill the growing gap of community and moral emptiness, we need to at least make sure that Confucius is quoted well. Because his “If a man is righteous, people will follow him without being told; but if he is not, then no amount of order will make them follow him”, looks in modern China more like: “If a man is rich, people will follow him without being told; but if he is not, then no amount of order will make them follow him”. And to make sure that this post script is not becoming a complete post and this post not a book, I will leave you with this.

    December 7, 2012 at 5:01 pm

    • A very thought provoking post Steven. Nicely done.

      December 8, 2012 at 7:44 am

  2. Gerrit Dorgelo

    Our Father in heaven,
    hallowed be your name.
    Your kingdom come.
    Your will be done,
    on earth as in heaven.
    Give us this day our daily bread.
    Forgive us our debts,
    as we have also forgiven our debtors.
    And do not bring us to the time of trial,
    but rescue us from evil.
    For the kingdom and the power and the glory are yours for ever.
    Amen.

    December 17, 2012 at 2:39 am

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