TO PARAPHRASE somebody famous whose name I can't quite remember, P.J. O'Rourke is an interesting bunch of guys. There's O'Rourke the property speculator, posing as an apartment buyer in Shanghai. There's O'Rourke the war correspondent, who reports on places most of us wouldn't want to probe with a drain cleaner on the end of a large stick. Even someone else's stick. Then there's O'Rourke the economist, working on a book about 18th-century free-trade pin-up boy Adam Smith and his book, The Wealth of Nations, who calls the US trade imbalance with China 'imaginary'. And let's not forget O'Rourke the political hit-man, who labels Pyongyang's Kim Jong-il as the biggest loon on the planet. Or O'Rourke the 58-year-old motoring journalist, who prefers a tractor to a BMW. But more important than all that, what does he think about nose piercings? And face tattoos? Why has he never seen Saving Private Ryan? And why does he vote 'stupid' instead of 'silly'? Hong Kong, Tuesday: Patrick Jake O'Rourke has stopped off at the end of a two-week, eight-city mainland blitzkrieg that he says helped make him 'a China expert by Bush administration standards'. Before his speaking engagement at the Foreign Correspondents' Club on Tuesday, the satirist reflects on lots of big, important stuff. 'Shanghai - it's a real gobsmacking city. God knows I didn't recognise a thing when I got back there,' he says. 'Pudong used to be a muddy field. We found one apartment block so expensive they wouldn't show it to us even though it was empty. Marketing strategy: 'These apartments are so exclusive we're not even gonna sell them to anyone.' 'When I was here nine years ago I thought western companies were being led up the garden path because nobody had ever really turned a profit in China. 'I had this vision of the guys at Boeing sitting round the table going, 'One billion customers ... one billion customers'. But a: they had no money; and b: they weren't being let loose with it,' he says. China has turned out to be a good investment, but what he finds really fascinating is its entrepreneurial energy. 'People have this enthusiasm for business - but they don't quite know what to do with their money, so you get some funny buildings, funny cars and funny decor.' Was that cash crusade confined to the biggest cities? 'I saw the same spirit in Wuxi,' he says. 'I met this guy who owns a coke plant, a giant dirty furnace that cooks coal. He drove me 150 miles to his factory, on a Sunday. I asked him where he got the technology and he said, 'We copied a couple of things and just built it.' He started as a government trader, got a cheap loan, began selling steel and then thought: 'I'll make my own.' 'There hasn't been opportunity in China for, oh, 6,000 years, and now people are grabbing it with both hands. There will be trouble - it's all going too fast - but it must be so exciting.' Exciting for different reasons was Iraq, where O'Rourke found himself in March 2003, at the beginning of the second Gulf war. Where will it all end? 'F***ed if I know,' says O'Rourke. 'In 2003 the situation was radically different. I got lost in Baghdad,' he says with a shrug. 'I wandered the streets for an hour; didn't know where the hell I was. I got a few scowls, coupla dirty looks. Got a lot of smiles and waves, too.' It was different from the first Gulf war in 1991, when order concerning journalists went out of the window as fighting began on the ground. Back then, he'd rented a car with a few others to follow the US troops into Kuwait - a chaotic ride in the middle of the night. 'We didn't have radios but we did have two Brit soldiers, returned retirees with bolt-action rifles,' he says. 'We drove right through the frontline and into Kuwait City before the allies arrived. Fortunately the Iraqis had left. Next thing we know we're being hugged, people are waving flags and Kuwaiti freedom fighters - kids who'd borrowed their dads' Buicks - were firing into the air all the AK-47s dropped by the Iraqis.' Things were better organised for the second Gulf war, when many journalists were embedded. He was stuck in Kuwait 'eating sheep brains, going crazy, trying to get out'. A friend, Mike Kelly, wound up among the advance troops heading for Baghdad airport. The Humvee they were travelling in came under attack from snipers when the canal bank it stood on collapsed. Kelly and a soldier drowned when the vehicle sank into the marshes surrounding the airport. 'That was towards the end of the fighting proper and he was the first American journalist to die in combat. A whole bunch - a whole bunch - have been killed since,' O'Rourke says. 'The war wasn't that goddam dangerous - it was the peace. I was more prophetic than I meant to be with the title of that book [Peace Kills is dedicated to Kelly]. 'Because they had been so fond of Mike the military made an exception and I was allowed to take his place,' he says. 'A couple of us wanted to save his story. Near the airport we drove through some villages flattened in the assault. One guy said, 'That's where my house was.' ''What happened?' ''Oh, you know - American rockets.' ''Er, ah, sorry,' I said. ''Don't be, it was worth it. It was a sh***y house anyway,' he said. He hated Saddam. My gut feeling is that if we could have provided water, electricity and a modicum of food aid ... I'm not saying it would be Belgium and I'm not saying there would be no insurrection, but it might have been manageable.' Had he seen the movie Syriana? 'No, but I believe it has some realistic war scenes,' says O'Rourke. 'I hate realistic war scenes - I haven't even seen Saving Private Ryan. I love unrealistic war scenes. Everybody survives. I've seen enough realistic violence to make me sick.' So why isn't he a peacenik leftie? 'The problem is not that the right is good, but that the left is worse,' he says. 'In the US we have the Stupid Party and the Silly Party, and in the end I vote for the Stupid Party. But I'm on the libertarian side of conservatism. If people pierce their noses it means more job opportunities for me, because who's going to hire them? 'Nice tongue stud. We'll make you vice-president for finance.' And the face tattoo - that's an interesting form of permanent self-limitation.' O'Rourke's essay How to Drive Fast on Drugs While Getting Your Wing-Wang Squeezed and Not Spill Your Drink is a paean to the pleasures of youth, particularly those derived from four wheels and aerodynamics. But the fearless, peerless motoring correspondent of Car and Driver admits to having lost a little interest in cars. 'When confronted by something like a 7 Series BMW, I find the gadgetry has got to the point where it isn't fun. There's too much junk. My favourite vehicle now is a Japanese tractor back in New Hampshire. It's a big old thing with levers and a bucket and a mower on the back.' Ploughing his New England furrows, O'Rourke laments America's 'screwed-up' China policy. 'Americans think China is a big factory that exists to export things to the United States,' he says. 'In fact, China is giving America an interest-free loan and we should be saying a big thank you. 'China's priority is getting rich and that's great. But the country is in a precarious position, surrounded by people with nuclear bombs, especially world champion crazy person Kim Jong-il. 'But within China, we don't know what's boiling below the surface because the political system is utterly opaque. I find it terrifying - it's the dark side of China. The Chinese leaders are possessed of the walking-the-500-pound-dog fallacy: they think they're leading the Chinese people to prosperity, but they're not leading them anywhere. They're being dragged. 'Because of the huge disparity between the urban and the rural, pressures are building. The leaders have tremendous power, and they'll do something. Could there be another Cultural Revolution? Yes - but not until after the Olympics. I think everyone's safe until 2008.'