FOR MOST OF recorded history, Chinese emperors and their communist heirs had little time for the merchant class, the members of which were widely looked down upon. These days, however, no Chinese politician seems complete without a star team of international corporate advisers.
Late last week, two international advisory bodies descended on southern China. First up was Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa's Council of International Advisers, which convened on November 8.
Two days later, members of Guangdong governor Lu Ruihua's International Consultative Conference (ICC) assembled in Guangzhou.
While Mr Tung's council was widely panned for its poor attendance record - only eight of 19 advisers attended - Guangdong's conference enjoyed a much lower truancy rate.
Nineteen of 25 advisers made the trek to Guangzhou. Those unable to show up sent high-ranking representatives in their stead.
Both the Hong Kong and Guangdong meetings are held behind closed doors, ostensibly because it allows participants to speak more freely.
The other possibility, of course, is that they are closed to hide the fact that nothing worthwhile happens.
'I was falling asleep in there,' said one executive attending Mr Lu's ICC.
'It is not a very efficient format. Many companies just use it as an opportunity to sell themselves.'
According to this participant, for example, an adviser from an information technology company might give a bland speech about the importance of e-commerce and then wrap it up with a pitch about what his company can do to help Guangdong develop e-commerce.
In another example from last year's session, a leading petrochemical company gave a presentation about how clean and efficient liquid natural gas (LNG) was, and about how much experience and expertise it had in the gas sector. A few months later, the company secured a large LNG project in southern China.
By no means did the presentation win the company the project, which was awarded through a strict and competitive tendering process. But it was still clearly part and parcel of a larger lobbying effort.
'I think some of the advisers are running out of steam,' said an executive who had attended all three ICCs held since 1999.
Another problem is that some advisers know very little about China. Asked what his advice to the governor would be, one executive said he was going to speak about the fact that China needed more accountants and better corporate reporting. That is true. But then Mr Lu already knows that China needs more accountants and better corporate reporting.
Pressed further, the executive was asked if there would be any opportunity for the advisers to tour the Pearl River Delta and advise the governor on regional development issues.
The perhaps jet-lagged executive replied that, yes, as a matter of fact there was a two-hour dinner boat cruise along the Pearl River after the conference - which was not quite the penetrating investigative tour his interviewer had in mind.
Unfortunately, the post-event press conference only reinforced suspicions that the affair is largely content-free. Consider this a translated - and typical - exchange between a local reporter and Mr Lu:
Q: 'The advisers' international consultative mechanism has been in existence for two years . . . What does this mechanism bring to Guangdong?'
A: 'Every session has produced great influence and discussion in society and attracts great attention from the general public . . . Firstly, we receive suggestions from the advisers. Secondly, we strengthen co-operation exchange. And thirdly, let Guangdong know more of their organisations . . . The International Consultative Conference is a joint advertisement for Guangdong and the advisers' organisations.'
After an hour of such rubbish, conference organisers tantalisingly scheduled a second press conference with Mr Lu later that night. After all, it was the weekend and busy governors do not talk to the press at 10pm on a Saturday night if they do not have anything to say. Or so everybody thought.
Just before the second press conference began, organisers said the governor would only accept yet more questions about the ICC.
While most foreign reporters groaned in despair, one remembered an adviser had said at the earlier session that Shenzhen's long-delayed second board for high-technology enterprises was 'an attractive idea'. So Mr Lu was asked about the adviser's remarks and the status of the second board.
Organisers clucked their disapproval while their boss appeared to have a spasm. Mr Lu's head jerked backwards and his hands flapped upwards.
'I can't answer that,' he sputtered.
It was a disappointing response, and an appropriate ending to a wasted Saturday.
[Meetings] are closed to hide the fact that nothing worthwhile happens