IT'S HARD TO forget that China is a one-party state. And there were plenty of reminders of that last week at the meeting of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in Shanghai where it was one party after another.
There were Shaolin monks and can-can girls, not to mention a whole lot of food and drink. The partying was so intense that it was difficult finding time to attend those tiresome board meetings and the oh-so-serious seminars.
But for those who managed to drag themselves to the official proceedings, there were a few things here and there to liven up the annual session just a little.
President Jiang Zemin was on hand to open the gathering with a message China might be the big guy on the Asian block but it was eager to be a good neighbour. As if to emphasise that point, a group of schoolchildren in gaily coloured costumes rushed up and gave him a big hug. They handed out stuffed toy panda bears to the senior bank officials as well as the man in charge.
Perhaps to show the great lengths to which China will go to be a good neighbour, an acrobat performed a back flip on to a seesaw. Even more impressive, he had a youngster balanced on his shoulders at the time, and both of them landed safely on the shoulders of another performer.
The ADB show in Shanghai was not quite in the same league as the last meeting of the bank governors on the mainland. That was in Beijing in May 1989 amid a growing wave of student protests for more democracy. The events surrounding that ADB meeting completely upstaged the bank's own gathering, much to the embarrassment of the Communist Party leaders in Beijing.
Unfortunately, that episode had a rather unhappy ending for the students as well as then-Communist Party chief Zhao Ziyang, who has since become an un-person and all but disappeared from the official version of history.
Shanghai managed to keep things more under control. Despite relatively relaxed security arrangements, there were no headline grabbing incidents.
Fortunately, the organisers chose not to use the tactics employed for the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation forum last year when the city of 16 million was shut down just so the delegates could get to their cocktail receptions on time.
Shanghai did close some of its highways. The popular sightseeing tunnel under the Huangpu River was shut as the nation's president addressed the ADB delegates at the nearby International Convention Centre. Some locals wonder why the tunnel was put there in the first place.
Shanghai really did not have to spend all that money digging under the Huangpu's muddy waters so tourists could ride through a Disneyland-style display of coloured lights. But the city decided to reopen the tunnel after the brief ADB pause, much to the appreciation of anxious tourists.
There were a few non-government organisations on hand to give the gathering the feel of a truly international event. Even before they arrived in Shanghai, they had been warned they should be on their best behaviour. Shanghai was not going to be a repeat version of a World Trade Organisation meeting in Seattle.
Organisers made it clear that demonstrations would be frowned upon and there might be serious consequences for anyone that did not take the advice to heart. The ADB did see the usual to and fro over Taiwan. The island still rankles that it was unceremoniously barred from using its official name, the Republic of China, and forced to make do with Taipei, China when the mainland was allowed to join the ADB in 1986.
Taiwan officials spent some of their work time trying in vain to remove an all-important comma between Taipei and China. They reasoned this would make them look a bit less like delegates from a city on Chinese territory.
If the occasional storm in a teacup could not keep you awake there were a few other helpful services courtesy of Shanghai. The organisers said about 35kg of ground coffee was perked, dripped or boiled each day to ensure that participants were as bright and alert as possible.
There was plenty of expensive equipment around to help the proceedings along. Organisers said there were no less than 2,500 sets of headphones thrown into service to make every excruciating word clear to the participants in a familiar language.
The high-tech equipment was not always used to its full advantage. At one seminar, both the speaker and translator could be heard bellowing out loud at the same time, making it impossible to understand in either English or Chinese.
Ultimately, a little bit of work probably got done. The board managed to talk about rebuilding Afghanistan and channelling aid to Asia's poorest countries. Hopefully, delegates came away with information vital to solving key issues of the region. Perhaps this was the case with one participant who was overheard asking another: 'Now, is the ADB a commercial bank?'
Asian Development Bank
Treaty of Nanking
Geography of China