Friday, 15 August 2008

Beijing Olympics - Part 1

Since returning from holiday, work has been intense. I had been working with the regional development agency “Think London” for several months, and my return to Shanghai meant 2 weeks before the start of the Olympics, and just a short number of days before the plans we had put in place to finally be tested.

Think London is responsible for promoting investment in the capital of the UK, it travels the country and the world explaining the virtues, advantages and potential growth companies, governments and individuals can gain from working with, and in, arguably the greatest city in the world…er that would be London.

The relationship with LTI – the makers of the Iconic London Taxi, is of course the vehicle itself. Think London have used a specially modified London Taxi as a mobile media and promotional tool for several years, and the vehicle supplied by LTI has seen service and in America, India and across Europe. This would year would see China’s turn to be entertained by this partnership – or at least that is how the story started out!

China has extremely tight import controls, especially over vehicles. It is almost impossible to bring a second hand vehicle into the country - I say almost impossible – the only success I have known was when working at NAC MG, we managed to import a number of historic Austin and MG cars from around the world, Oh and when SAIC, so convinced that they would be successful in purchasing the Rover brand from BMW did the same – but of course those vehicles never emerged from the dockside after they lost out to Ford who finally did by the rights to use the brand (thus ROEWE was born and the cars still continue to rust in Shanghai Docks!), other than that I have never heard of anyone being able to bring a used car into the country – especially a right hand drive London Taxi in bright colours!

So we played around with ideas of how we could do this for several weeks, trying (as you do) to see what political strings can be pulled, and what favours you can glean from new and old colleagues all with no success. After much head scratching, I went out on a limb and offered a new locally built London Taxi, whilst this may not sound too much of a risk – we hadn’t at this point built a single vehicle, had no complete factory and most importantly the correct approvals from the Chinese government to use the vehicle for anything other than test and development. However I saw this as an amazing opportunity to gain public and media exposure at the largest media event in a decade – the Beijing Olympics.

Advertising at the Olympics was way beyond our financial reach, especially when you consider that having spent the several billion rmb that it would take to get your products into the eyes of the public, we would have had to take deposits for the next 30 years worth of production for any kind of payback! It always seems strange to me that the brands that do spend the equivalent to the national debt of Brazil in promoting their brands at such events are already the most well known brands in the world? Or is that the point?

The events being planed by Think London in Beijing, which required our vehicle to be present, would be worth a fortune in terms of free advertising and would help our little company get a foot onto the big stage.

We would provide a vehicle, equip it with the latest in visual and audio technology, paint it in bright colours, and gain the appropriate approvals for its use during the Olympic Games, in return Think London would use the vehicle to deliver VIP and VVIP visitors and guests from the around the world to special events hosted by the British Governments many departments camped out in Beijing during August. The potential passenger list would have put most London Cabbies stories of “you will never guess who I just had in the back of my cab today?” into the C and D list of celebrities. Prime Ministers, Mayors, Lords, Ladies, Dukes, Duchesses, Sporting Heroes and Business Leaders from around the globe were all making the journey to Beijing, and hopefully travel in our Taxi at some point – I like to call it “promotion by association”.

So vehicle finished, and registration approved (I make it sound simple, but this took 4 weeks, hundreds of hours of document preparation and camping out at the registration bureau for 4 days), the vehicle was ready to make the journey to Beijing from Shanghai. Of course we knew entering the city would be difficult, with security as tight as a goldfishes backside we planned for the Tow truck to stop 2 hours away from the cities outer ring round, we would then attempt to drive the vehicle into the heart of the Olympic village using the Olympic Pass we had been given by BOCOG the organisers of the games. The vehicle was in fact stopped in Anhui province and never got near Beijing, I knew security would be tight but this was ridiculous, hours of inspection, negotiation, phone calls, pleading and begging finally allowed the vehicle to continue its way into Beijing, and starts its month long programme of promotional activities.

The first 10 days of the Olympics (post opening ceremony) are about business, the Olympics provides a great opportunity for the heads of large corporations to be in the same place at the same time, and it also allows those that want a piece of a particular corporate pie, to lavish their target clients with gifts, tickets to events and of course the after show party’s, whilst I do not fit into any of those categories I had been invited to a reception at the Ambassadors residence in Beijing several days later, and took this as an opportunity to see the vehicle, ensure arrangements for the vehicle were going to plan and of course to visit Beijing during the Olympics.

During the run up (which seemed to last longer than the American presidential elections) we had heard how they would ‘clean up Beijing’, reports reached western newspapers about how the sky would be clear, spitting would be banned, Taxi drivers taught English, unsavoury bars closed and the hookers sent back to the Russian borders. As a regular visitor to Beijing (5 times this year), I was keen to see how things had progressed, the journey started well with the local airline putting on its newest A330 aircraft, and the staff being more polite than normal, they even had copies of the China Daily in English available to read during the 2 hour flight – although after 79 pages of Olympic propaganda it did become tiresome!

I could go on about all of their ‘clean up Beijing’ campaigns had failed, but you’ve probably read that already, from the army of foreign journalists here, that seem desperate to find fault wherever they can – sure my taxi driver stopped to relieve himself on the hard shoulder, just before clearing his nasal cavity’s in a way that only a true Chinese man can, and of course the air was so thick that it left grit on your teeth, and yes everyone still pushed, shoved, barged and was generally devoid of any manners – but none of this matters, if it wasn’t for people walking in their pyjamas, spitting on your shoes and shouting “WEI” loudly in to their phones during a funeral – what would be left for us to talk about?

The real changes I saw in Beijing may not have been noticed by the visiting journalist, small innocuous changes – like seat belts in the back of taxi’s, and the lack of any construction work which has been halted during the Olympics for two reasons 1. So not to provide any poor migrant worker shots for the western journalist and 2. Because all of the workers have been ordered out of Beijing, in fact I think everyone not directly involved with sweeping, pointing the way, helping you cross the road or wave a flag has been banished from the capital. Beijing has become a ghost town, I have never seen any city in China so quite, my plane was half empty, the taxi journey took only 30 minutes (including the impromptu rest break by the driver), the streets were clear and the houses empty. I guess the local government worked out that it couldn’t stop its people from engaging in their usual activities that seem to upset us foreigners so much – so it sent them all away – one way to solve the problem I guess!


Jack Yan said...

I have been trying to think of whom else had been successful at bringing a second-hand vehicle into Red China. The only other successful example I could think of, beyond your own, was HM the Queen’s state visit to Beijing many years ago. The vehicle was not an armed Rolls-Royce Phantom but—wait for it—an FX4 taxi.

Paul Stowe said...

Thanks Jack, I am sure there are plenty of examples - I can think of a London Red Bus that made an appearance recently! Although I have my doubts it came from the UK!!!