Thursday, May 19, 2022

Breathless In Beijing

Nothing's going to happen on the PM's trip to China, world-weary types on the circuit told her. But what an experience it turned out to be. Our senior editor's Beijing Diary (with a little inspiration from Bridget Jones's).

Breathless In Beijing

Guess what, am going to China on the PMs trip and no one’s letting me get excited about it. Nothing’s going to happen, world-weary types on the circuit are saying, no major breakthroughs this time, not much to be announced. You’ll have to listen to long speeches about historic partnerships (all TWICE as long because everything has to be translated), and get told x, y and z words in the joint declaration are a significant improvement on what they put out last time. Being on The Plane, hanging out with the Media Pack, cosying up to officials who’ve never returned your phonecalls, is going to be the real action, Old Hands tell me -- not the stuff that happens in the Great Hall of the People.

Still, better learn how to spell Wen Jiabao and find Tawang on the map. For good measure, I even look up "market economy status", and Google ‘China US nuclear India NSG’ before heading off to Number One MEA Man’s briefing. Am pleasantly surprised to find Number One Man not at all intimidating, despite all the stories about his amazing brain-power and pedigree, but really charming and patient. Has brain-power alright, can even remember which question sprightly woman journo asked at the last India-China talkathon. Does it really matter that his favourite answer is: "You’ll have to wait and see".

Next stop, Bundobust Meeting by MEA XP Division. Yes, this is really what they call it, must be some colonial thing. We get the lowdown on time difference, flight schedules, and proper inner wear, please, these are sub-zero temperatures. Don’t be late like last time, official tells journos, sounding both cross and indulgent. Seems to know most of them, has obviously been on loads of PM trips with them. Doesn’t know me at all, but is very helpful. ( Am slightly in shock, this is all very clubby, not officialdom as I know it.) As I leave, get handed, along with travel docs, a really useful Air India travel bag. What nice people.

Beijing, here we come

I am running late. Took ages to find godforsaken Air Force Station Palam in the dark. Check-in and immigration being done on edge of airfield, near Air India plane, by ladies and gents behind long tables. Very Senior Editor is behind me in the queue, getting a little restive, I can tell, as lady clerk runs her pencil up and down the list, trying to find my name. Quickly offer to find my own name, and move on. Departure area full of journos wearing special security cards. (It’s OK, I have one too.) Very Famous TV Personality is here already, walking around pressing flesh, laughing her full-throated laugh, while everybody watches her from the corners of their eyes. Hmmm, PMO official is chatting with journos in an animated way. That’s where I head, in a fake-leisurely fashion ( don’t know it yet, but will really get to perfect this over the next three days), hoping to catch some action. No luck, they’re only talking Beijing weather. But oh yes, I can feel the buzz.

Time to board the special Air India One flight. Now, need to explain seating arrangements, otherwise hoi-polloi won’t understand what goes on. NSG and other staff are huddled at the back of the plane, 34 journos are in the middle in nice, comfy business class seats. In front of the journos is a cabin carved out for the prime minister, its doors remain shut 99.5 per cent of the time. On the right of the plane is a corridor leading to the front of the jet where officials sit. Seating arrangements are critical, an Old Hand told me two days ago, while I was getting her to explain difference between LOC and LAC: "If you’re lucky, you’ll be seated on the right side of the plane, from where you can see officials coming down the corridor, and grab them." That’s exactly where I am -- and just a couple of seats behind Very Famous TV Personality. Added advantage for me, because so many people, officials even, coming to greet her. Yes, have definitely got the seating right.

Plane is called Khajuraho, cabin has that slightly tired look that is so Air India. But my god, are we being served? Awfully pretty girl in sari at my elbow, unfurling starched napkin and tenderly offering fresh juices, quality wines (not the vinegary stuff they give you on normal flights), whiskies, brandies, canapés. How it works is, you settle back in your seat, sip pomegranate juice, try to decide between single malt and your fave Bombay Sapphire gin, flicking all the while, not through trashy in-flight rag, but Dead Serious booklet with useful stuff on the trip. Eyes do begin to glaze over after a while, but I prise them open, remembering Old Hand’s warning not to drift off to sleep with mouth open while others get ahead on networking. Best to follow the drill: drink, eat, pick up high quality gossip, covertly watch how two Very Senior Editors, ideologically opposed to each other, are getting on in the best media seats (rather well, it appears) and grab officials heading for the back of the plane for a quiet smoke. (Front of the plane is completely off-limits.) At some point during the night, word is out: " Positive stuff" happening on India-China nuclear energy cooperation. Hmmm, maybe trip not a write-off, world-weary types got it wrong.

Day One:

Something so wonderfully bracing about stepping into minus nine degrees early in the morning if you haven’t slept all night. Especially if you are balancing hand baggage and handbag, plus large box of Lindt chocolates and velvet toilet kit presented by Very Sweet Stewardess. And also trying to put on your gloves. When we finally reach the large media bus, am wide awake and fully able to take in PM getting off the plane, stepping on to red carpet and being welcomed, as well as said carpet being rolled up with clinical precision by efficient posse within minutes of his departure. We’re off too, heading for the super glitzy Grand Hyatt in downtown Beijing. Staying here for two nights costs $650, but this is all we have to pay for, apart from own shopping, of course. Plane-ride, food and booze are on the house. We even get coupons for hotel buffet lunches and dinners when there are no parties to go to. ( Will really have to go on Emergency Atkins on return.) Can buy yourself a few taxi rides if you’re a rugged individualist -- not too many of those here, I think -- but not really necessary. Apart from the big media bus, there are vans on stand-by too.

The more I get a fix on this, the better it gets -- so many people looking after us! Apart from the XP guys, there are loads of really helpful embassy staff, and even person flown down from Hong Kong. Magic hands processing our documents, giving us printed itineraries, handing us copies of speeches! This is the life. Computers, and coffee, tea, nibbles, on tap at the slick media centre in the hotel’s basement! " Fabulous place," I exclaim, but an Old Hand gently tells me the one they set up during Vajyapee’s 2003 trip was much better, with panoramic view of Beijing. (Really must learn to sound more blasé about these things.)

Today, it turns out, is a Light Day. Main event is private dinner for the PM by the Chinese Premier. Seems senior officials may just drop in after the dinner at this Get Lucky bar place (all sounds very jolly) where the XP people are throwing a party for us tonight. Party is clearly a must-attend. Media Pack spends its day sleeping off journey, lunching with Chinese foreign office spokesman ( diary item possibility about him ending his welcome address with "Hindi Chini, Bhai Bhai"—doesn’t he know Indians find that slogan a bit iffy?), taking in the Great Wall of China, writing about PM giving pep talk to Indian businessmen on not being scared of Chinese.

What a fun place Get Lucky Bar is, with peppy band and free flowing booze. Everybody is drinking, eating, and talking at the same time, when a ripple of excitement spreads through the room because a bunch of suits has just arrived. (Must be like how bird-watchers feel get when they spot Siberian cranes landing near waterhole.) Good heavens, Number One MEA Man is here, so is Top Security Boss, Lady Ambassador, so many other senior suits, alas all quickly surrounded by lucky, lucky people. But it’s OK, bits and pieces of info already drifting, Chinese-whisper like, through the room. Positive signals definitely on nuclear cooperation, even something on border, perhaps…Things are looking up.

People push off to file copy, thank god. Now magazine--types like me can buttonhole the suits and get different stuff from what papers and TV are saying. Number One Man actually remembers me from the question I asked at his media briefing (what a memory) so that’s a good start. But, bother, why is Earnest Hindi Journo butting in and addressing him in long, flowing periods just when he’s starting to explain about the Chinese Way? All too soon, the suits disappear into the night. Never mind, let’s have another drink and listen to the Uighur band, they’re playing good stuff…

Day Two:

Wake up indecently early, so get onto the Net to check out what’s in the Delhi papers. Hmmm, some people really did get lucky. Positive signals on civilian nuclear energy cooperation, and also hope that Beijing may stick to border commitments! Two sides may resolve differences on the question of not disturbing settled populations! May also get back to exchanging maps! This is turning out to be quite a trip.

Big action day today. Passes in a blur. Went to big India-China business session in the morning -- Indian captains of industry going on about Chinese Bad Practices and them not buying enough Indian veggies. All sounding a bit undiplomatic to me, but then, business is business. Now in Great Hall of the People watching ceremonial guard of honour. Very moving place (so much history!) but does look the teeniest bit like large lobby of four-star hotel. Big media discussion going on about whether Wen put his hand on PMs arm when the PM missed a step, or did he just put guiding arm on his back? Lots of people saying arm on back, so guess will go with that one.

Going to be hours now, before delegation-level talks finish, and joint statement is issued. No press conference, they don’t have them (so much better not to, I think, in such a complex relationship). But better hang around, in case someone tosses off impromptu line or two, like how wonderful it’s been having you here. Chemistry is what it’s all about. Only Very Senior Editors get to go to official banquet, rest of us troop back to media centre and start decoding India-China joint statement. Definitely positive development on nuclear energy cooperation, though in a, well, very incremental sort of way. (Nothing wrong with that, it’s the Chinese Way, they don’t like to rush things.) Many journos harping on about whether China will support India at Nuclear Suppliers Group. Luckily, Number One Man is here, and explaining everything. "Certain implications" on NSG in the statement, he says, but still much too early for India to pop the NSG question at anyone.

Don’t need to worry about NSG anymore, thank god. People can go file and then party. Booze bottles out before the last sentence (or was it the first?) written. All laughing as talented journo does class act, mimicking everyone from Prime Minister to Very Senior Editor. Every Quite Serious XP Chief is smiling indulgently. Old Hands chit-chatting about how Chinese securitywalas so much nicer to Indian journos than Putin’s chaps on PM’s Russia trip. A clear sign, I think, that India-China relationship improving. But then, what about India-Russia? Too late in the night to worry about that. Better go to bed.

Day Three:

Last day in Beijing, am rushing to catch PM’s address to important think-tank. Lovely speech, it turns out, especially the bit about world watching two-and-a-half billion Indians and Chinese getting together for 21C. Never get tired of hearing that one. No question-answer session at the end of the speech, even with Indologists and whatnot hanging about. Better to be safe about these things, I guess, this is India-China. Have to go shopping now, and then head for airport. Gosh, new VIP section of Beijing airport really plush, so much satin and gilt, lovely glittering chandelier, shimmery ceiling, and nice big chairs to hang about it. Lots of people getting their picture taken with Very Famous TV Personality, even PMO junior staff. One for the album, I guess.

My god, what excitement as soon as plane takes off. Magic door opens and PM walks out and shakes hands with Very Senior Editors and says hello to all of us.Old Hands have already told me to use elbows and get right next to him, or I won’t be able to hear anything, with all that flying noise. So here I am, drinking in every word. Tiresome journos still going on about NSG thing, and guess what, PM says he did ask Chinese for NSG support (maybe did not think it was too early) but they didn’t give firm yes. But thinks they won’t be obstacle when the time comes, which, of course, is fantastic.

After he leaves, we start networking like mad to find out what else happened. Border developments a bit disappointing. Turns out Chinese still being quite iffy about exchanging maps and very shifty on that all "settled population" business. (Getting to understand now what world-weary were going on about before I left.) But look, what matters most is that PM met everybody and gave the whole thing a push. As I keep saying, this is all about people-to-people contact. On a different note, this caviar is excellent, think I will ask Very Sweet Stewardess for a bit more. Here it comes, and she’s also got me another of those really useful Air India travel bags. Hmmm, quite heavy, will open it later.

Okayish landing but baggage nightmare later, we all scrabbling to get our luggage from the containers. Why can’t they have a conveyor belt, or even better, build a posh VIP airport like Chinese, who are always so ahead of us in everything. But anyway it’s over now, and am finally home. Quite exhausted, I have to say, but need to check out heavy Air India bag before going to bed. Goodness, a bottle of Still, by Jennifer Lopez (not cheapo eau de toilette but eau de parfum), Benson and Hedges ciggies and Johnny Walker whisky. Hmmm, ciggies very tempting, but too soon to break NY resolution, will tell chain-smoking Foreign Editor bought them specially for him, might even get extension on deadline. Not really a Johnny Walker type, would have preferred Bombay Sapphire myself, but never mind, will pass Johnny on to sweet guy in Shastri Bhavan who works seriously long hours. Really, if anyone deserves to drink sarkari whisky, he does. Who knows, he might even be useful one day…