On Interviews With Chinese Ministers & Hong Kong Trademark Agents

by Chris Devonshire-Ellis

October 25th, 2010

A while ago I had an unusual problem that got picked up extensively by the international media, and then circulated around many of the China blogs. Having been in China for many years, and as the head of my firm, I was one of the few foreign consultants with access to Government Ministers, and I was able to arrange, on annual basis, meetings with many senior officials. In fact, the summaries of these would then be published in an edition of my China Briefing magazine . It was a useful way to gain first hand knowledge of Government thinking, and I used to ask our clients and readers beforehand if they had questions to ask. Accordingly, it was a useful service. However, amongst competitors, or those not in the loop, jealousy can be the result, and there are people out there waiting for prominent consultants such as myself to make a slip. The vindictive find ridicule is easy to disperse.  

I eventually made such a slip when meeting with the Chairman of the China Banking & Regulatory Commission. I’d met him several times before in fact, but on this occasion his time was limited and what was to be an hours discussion was truncated to 20 minutes. Accordingly the occasional protocols of “off the record” were forgotten. In the meeting, while discussing the impact on China of the global economic downturn, he mentioned that he felt the RMB would move against the dollar. I went back to my office, and wrote what seemed an innocuous report up on the China Briefing news site , then went home. The next morning – chaos !

I arrived at my office in Beijing to find my phone ringing nonstop with foreign media trying to find out what had been said and to confirm who had said what. The markets in Europe and the US had reacted to that comment and the RMB/dollar position had moved overnight by billions of dollars. I had no idea that such a small piece of information could be so volatile. Then matters got worse. The Chinese government, in trying to track down the source of the rumors, eventually came across the online article I’d written. In trying to correct what was becoming a major currency issue, they took the only course available to them – they effectively denied the statement had been made, and in fact called the interview a ‘fake’. My feelings at the time were a growing realization that I was in serious trouble. Having the man responsible for China’s national purse strings staring at you after a multi-billion dollar loss is not very pleasant, and I could feel my head was very much on the chopping block. I had to act very fast, as both my career and indeed my entire business was suddenly in jeopardy. The last thing you want to do in China is to upset the Government, and the Chairman of the Banking Regulator is one of the most powerful men in the country.

We subsequently pulled the article off the website and deleted all references. I also issued an apology, but on the basis of a ‘breach of protocol’. However, a photo of myself with the Chairman had also been published , and those familiar with Chinese politics weren’t going to give in so easily. They weren’t convinced as to why the Government had called the interview ‘faked’ while not actually denying that the statement had been made. Here, the Government were actually quite clever – it was ‘fake’ as in unauthorized – not fake as in it didn’t actually happen. The Government had to intervene in the markets, and I thought it would be best to go away and lie very low and not utter a word.

However, with the media intrusion becoming intolerable, I left China for Macau, not knowing if I’d even be allowed back again. Choosing Macau because the story had been covered for days in Hong Kong’s newspapers and TV, I then went to India and our offices there to keep out of the spotlight and let it die down. Eventually it did. But some of the China bloggers, those either jealous, or bearing grudges, had a field day. Ridicule and pent up resentment against me poured out as a constant stream of vitriol. It’s still often put about that the entire thing was made up by me to generate publicity (which would be a very stupid thing to have done, and in any event, I was well known enough at the time not to need additional exposure). The funny thing about all that was that the comments – Fake this, fake that, were all made by people themselves using made up names online. In their determination to ridicule me, they were not prepared to put their own actual identities on the line. That’s cowardly, and in the event didn’t do any good. From rumors I’d been deported from China, to ultimately that I’d committed suicide, the China blogosphere became a rather toxic place to be. One English language expatriate run website even tried to publish which school my daughter was attending. My wife at the time was sent hate emails.

They then went for me personally, digging up old articles, trying tot find out my background, printing all sorts of rubbish. Strangely, no-one ever had the courtesy to actually pick up the phone and ask me. But one story that did the rounds was from my memoirs The Story Of A China Practice within which I related the tale of my firms first ever piece of China business, which was a trademark for a bar in Shekou, near Shenzhen in South China. I mentioned how I’d had it marked at the China Patent and Trademark office in Wanchai, in Hong Kong. Several expatriate lawyers and social commentators said I’d lied, that there was no such thing, and used that to further ridicule and attempt to cast doubt on my words. It long ago stopped being a practice of mine to comment when people place nasty material on blogs, they are not interested in the truth, they just want to perpetrate their version of events, regardless of whether they’re right or wrong. Insinuations and half truths are wheeled out as factual, and there’s little point in trying to engage with that kind of mentality. But, for those who are bothered enough to track it down, here are the China Patent & Trademark Agents I used that day many years ago. Still going strong, and still in Wanchai: www.ccpit-patent.com.cn. So there are a lot of so-called ‘experts’ who when it comes to it – don’t actually know very much themselves, but are quick to pass judgement on others if it suits them.

The Government eventually forgave me, (I returned to China with no problem after licking my wounds in India for three weeks) and it’s a rather more contrite Chris that meets with Ministers these days. The sad thing about it is that the contents of those meetings remain private, and the previous capability I had of expressing the views of Chinese Ministers to our Readership has been taken away. In seeking to ridicule me for a faux pas, the blog community did the English language reading business community in China a huge disservice. But these days, the lesson learned – and for my meetings with any Government Minister, and not just the Chinese ones – is treat all such conversations as if they are off the record. I still meet with them, but the blog community isn’t going to get to hear about it.