“I keep telling them what nice people you are, but they won’t listen!” The speaker was a gangly Englishman with prominent ears, sharing breakfast tea with an attractive Chinese woman in a mid-priced hotel near Paddington Station in London. The date was May 17, 2019, and the headlines were full of stories about the belated American effort to persuade its allies, including the United Kingdom, not to adopt the Chinese version of 5G wireless technology. The Englishman’s ears grew red as he struggled to persuade the woman that the deal they had been working on was not about to fall through.
I was sitting at a nearby table, and while I am not in the habit of eavesdropping on business conversations, this one caught my attention because of the way the woman was dressed. I don’t know for sure, but my general impression is that female office attire in London does not normally consist of Nasty Gal platform heels, sheer black stockings, leather hot pants, see-through silk blouses, garish rhinestone earrings, and theatrical makeup.
Then the Englishman uttered the word “Huawei.” At the time of this writing, Huawei is practically a household word among newspaper readers. But only a few weeks ago, this Chinese manufacturer of 5G wireless networks had a low enough profile that the closed-caption service of CNN made one of its typical orthographic errors, transcribing “Huawei” as “Yahweh.” This was weirdly apt, because the Chinese Communist Party does in fact aspire to be all-seeing and all-powerful, like the God of the Hebrew Bible—the only difference being that the latter is also infinitely merciful and just.
Back to my eavesdropping. At the mention of Huawei, the Chinese woman frowned, scooped up her phone, and exited the room. Then, as if on cue, a grim-faced Chinese man entered and began to press the Englishman for more detail about why his bosses were being recalcitrant about the deal. At this point, I was trying to control my own facial expression so as not to be mistaken for an American spy—or perhaps a colleague of the poor young fellow, who at this point was floundering badly and, I suspect, wondering desperately where his Chinese lady friend had gone.
At length she returned, and, standing behind the Englishman, she leaned over his shoulder to peer at his laptop and place a gentle hand on his back, while her grim-faced comrade delivered what sounded like a well-rehearsed harangue. I could only catch a few phrases: “amazing 5G speeds,” “zero latency,” “brilliant connectivity,” “autonomous vehicles,” “millions of jobs,” “trillions of pounds.” When the harangue was over, the Englishman sat silently while his two interlocutors spoke to each other, and to unseen parties on their phones, in rapid, agitated Mandarin.
At this point, we were all pretty breathless: the Englishman for reasons that should be obvious, the two Chinese because it appeared they were getting chewed out by their bosses for not closing the deal, and me because I was witnessing history in the making.