It's 8pm on March 25. That's no normal hour for a press conference, but the Grand Hyatt ballroom is packed with journalists and photographers. So is the one up in Beijing. They are there to hear the 2008 annual results of the world's largest bank, Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, and, perhaps more importantly, find out whether its three strategic investors are about to dump their US$12.86 billion worth of stakes in the lender when their lock-up period expires next month. Their concern is valid. With few exceptions, strategic investors of most mainland banks listed in Hong Kong have sold their holdings for much-needed cash to survive the financial crisis. Share prices have been battered. Short positions on ICBC have been growing. No sooner had the press conference started when a journalist asked about the sell-down. To the media's surprise, bank chairman Jiang Jianqing said a 'mystery guest' would provide an answer at the end of the meeting. So an hour went by while Mr Jiang talked about interest spreads, loans and the economy before he finally announced the arrival of his 'mystery guest'. Enter Michael Evans, deputy chairman of Goldman Sachs, ICBC's largest strategic investor. It was so dramatic that one could almost see the spotlights and hear the drum roll. But instead of addressing the sell-down concerns, he began by saying: 'We have worked hard as a strategic investor.' Journalists were given an account of how Goldman had trained 4,000 ICBC officials in Hong Kong, Beijing and New York; how its senior management was working full-time to help the mainland bank beef up its credit and operational risk management operations, and how they have hired world-class consultants to implement the plan to ensure long-term benefits. Then he announced that Goldman had 'voluntarily' extended its lock-up period for a year on 80 per cent of its 4.93 per cent stake in ICBC and would prefer to sell the remaining 20 per cent through a private placement. After Mr Jiang pointed out that the other two strategic investors had also agreed to make private sales of their 'preferred' options, Mr Evans was quick to add that Goldman was the only one that committed to an extended lock-up period. The session ended at 9.15pm with Mr Evans and Mr Jiang shaking hands in front of the cameras. That is what I call showmanship. Goldman is no stranger to this. It clearly understands the saying 'a friend in need is a friend indeed' and what it means among Chinese. In 1998, when the Asian financial crisis hit Hong Kong hard, the firm signed a 12-year lease for nine floors of the then half-empty Cheung Kong Center owned by Li Ka-shing. In the summer of 2003, when the deadly Sars epidemic engulfed the mainland and Hong Kong, its then chairman Hank Paulson made a courageous - and well-publicised - visit to Beijing. However, this time round, 'the friend in need' is more likely to be Goldman. To mainlanders, Goldman's new commitment has certainly alleviated some of the short-term pressure. That's not just the pressure on ICBC's share price and its management, but also, if not more importantly, the pressure on senior government officials who championed or supported the sale of bank stakes to strategic investors in return for stability and expertise. Yet, to be honest, the effect is limited. For some officials, the damage has already been done. On the other hand, the need for China to be a source of revenue has never been bigger for Goldman and other investment banks. Yet mainland sentiment towards western financial institutions has never been worse. The seed was sown in 2006 when all three Hong Kong-listed state-owned banks sold stakes to strategic investors at a deep discount. Criticism of the handsome paper profits made headlines. Then came the 2007 Chinese bestseller Currency War. The book, which provides a conspiracy theory on how Wall Street bankers manipulated global politics and economies, was widely read by senior mainland officials. Fuel was added when the government's investment in Blackstone Group and Morgan Stanley ended up losing billions of dollars. Online chatrooms called state officials involved 'traitors'. If by then there was still any suggestion that 'we have no choice but to pay the western banks for their excellence in product development and risk management', it had long gone by September, as mammoth mismanaged derivatives exposure forced western banks into bankruptcy or nationalisation one by one. No wonder, when strategic investors began to unload their stakes in mainland banks earlier this year, the public became angry. These investors were depicted as 'greedy opportunists' who had brought China and its banks little value. Official newspapers carried discussions on the value of strategic investors, although in a controlled tone they also emphasised their legal right to cash in. I have no access to Beijing's corridors of power to know whether these views also reflect the official mood towards foreign investment banks, but recently a senior member of an international bank told me: 'The financial crisis has definitely enhanced our franchise [in China] compared to those who sold out.' It therefore made a lot of sense that Goldman, which has not suffered as much as its rivals in the financial meltdown, should postpone its sale. After all, the market value of its ICBC holding not covered by the new lock-up is already sufficient to cover the US$2.6 billion it put into the bank in 2006. Besides, why sell at the bottom? It also made a lot of sense for Goldman to initiate Mr Evans' appearance at the press conference (according to ICBC sources), changing his schedule twice to fit in with ICBC's timing of the event. Judging from the favourable coverage of the show in the mainland media, including the Xinhua News Agency, it was a good move.