Thursday, December 13, 2012

Beijing - a city out of hope

I've had some curious little jobs in my time here. Just in the last month or two, I've found myself preparing comments on China's economic prospects for the coming year (because, of course, the CEOs of major international companies don't have the time to answer interview questions themselves - at least, not for the likes of China Daily and the Global Times), ghost-writing an editorial for one of south-east Asia's leading newspapers, and tweaking the English version of a major international trade agreement. It's amazing, the kind of responsibility that people will entrust you with just because you can write nicely!

But perhaps the most onerous task I was ever offered - something that I was embarrassed and annoyed at being entrusted with, and eventually turned down - was just over a year ago, when I was asked to write the bid for Beijing to be selected as the next World Design Capital.

Well, I wasn't approached to write the thing from scratch. I wish I had been. I wish somebody competent had been. No, they thought they could get away with a bit of hasty last-minute re-touching. But, since the document was getting on for 20,000 words long and was a complete f***ing shambles, they really couldn't. And since they'd only thought to seek the assistance of a native English-speaking editor 48 hours or so before the final submission deadline, there wasn't even enough time available to 'polish' it thoroughly.

I'd had an early intimation that the project would be an ignominious failure at least a year or two before this, when the Beijing Industrial Design Center (as far as I could gather, this was a quango set up by the Beijing government specifically to coordinate the bid) hired one of my former students. One of my less gifted former students, that is: a pleasant enough chap, but, to be frank, a bit of a plank. He was tasked with conducting preliminary research into the perceived strengths and weaknesses of the design industry in Beijing. So, he sent me an e-mail asking, "What do foreigners think of Beijing?" Naturally, I asked him to be a bit more specific; and so it was that I slowly managed to piece together what it was he was up to. I suggested that he compile a mailing list of people involved in design and in the most closely related industries like fashion, art, advertising, architecture and urban planning, etc., and then develop a structured questionnaire that could be sent out to them. I even offered to help draft one, for FREE - but he never got back to me about that.

I've no idea what they did with the next 18 months or so, but they clearly didn't conduct any worthwhile research, or didn't manage to solicit very many responses if they did. My student ruefully confessed to me that they hadn't really received ANY positive comments in response to their enquiries, and had been left over the last few weeks before submission frantically making stuff up. The bid document they finally produced was way too long, chaotically structured, desperately, desperately DULL - and mostly written in the most risible, often just about incomprehensible Chinglish. And they had titled it.... Beijing - A City Out Of Design. I assume they meant By Design, but it never really became apparent. I was tempted to leave this unchanged, because it did seem all too sadly appropriate to the dismal portrait the document painted of a city which had achieved almost nothing worthwhile in urban planning or in the creative industries for the past century: We had some sense of design once, but now it's all gone....

You know, chaps, if you have to mount a bid for something like this in English, you really should hire a native speaker to write it for you. In fact, you should hire an international PR agency to assemble the bid for you. If you want to be seriously considered for the accolade, that is; rather than make yourselves - and your capital city, and China as a whole - into an international laughing-stock.

I have no doubt that the BIDC had originally been quite generously funded for this project. But what had they spent the money on? By the time they had drafted their ludicrous, no-hope-of-winning, not-even-going-to-be-read bid, they were carping about spending even a few thousand renminbi on my final edit.

I was willing to consider doing this work for a low fee; I might even have been willing to do it for NO FEE, because I would like Beijing (and China) to have a chance of winning honours like this, to at least have a chance of having the application taken seriously. Although I bitch about the place a lot, this city is my adopted home and I have a lot of fondness for it - and for China and the Chinese people in general. I don't like to see them made to look ridiculous. And that's what this asinine bid document was doing.

So, regardless of the fee, I was going to take this on, and do my best to re-write the bid to make it at least readable. Since the job was too short-notice to secure payment in advance, I frankly didn't trust this outfit to pay me anyway, whatever agreement we reached on a fee - but I didn't really care. This seemed like an interesting and worthwhile job, it was something that I wanted to do.

But then their go-between, my former student, rang me up again, and told me that he could get the fee bumped up by another couple of thousand, but he'd expect to keep half of the extra for himself. Now, I'm always grateful for an introduction to some work, and I would, of my own volition, have done something to express my gratitude on this occasion - a dinner at the very least, probably 500 RMB or so stuffed in an envelope. But 1,000 RMB seemed a little steep. And... well, I'm afraid I fairly blew my top at him.

It wasn't just my student's gobsmacking effrontery that annoyed me so. It was more that this shameless piece of petty graft brought home to me just why this project had gone so spectacularly down the toilet: the entire budget must have been serially pilfered by the people working there; everyone, right down to the lowliest office boy, had taken his or her own little rake off it, until there was nothing left to spend on fulfilling the project's purpose.

And that, I'm afraid, is China in a nutshell.

This was one of the pivotal moments that persuaded me I had to get out of this country.

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