I WAS MORE tired than I’d ever been when the fleet of black Volkswagens arrived. We watched them pull into the hotel forecourt from our table in the lobby cafe. All the other tables were empty and set for the morning; even in Beijing the hours after midnight tend to be quieter. We were distributed in pairs among the Volkswagens, and the convoy purred out onto Chang An Avenue, past Tiananmen Square, towards one of the suburbs close to Zhongnanhai, the secluded enclave from which China is ruled.
I was surprised at the size of the apartment we were taken to, even though I knew our host was a ‘princeling’, the son of a very senior cadre, and held a senior post in one of China’s ministries. Several of the apartment’s rooms and corridors were lined, floor-to-ceiling, with wooden shelving carved in the Ming style. On the shelves were scores of antiques: jade carvings, intricate silverware, pottery, rich lacquerware. Our host was in an expansive mood, clearly delighted at this visit by Australia’s first ambassador to China. He talked enthusiastically about ‘his’ antiques collection, passing around this and that ancient jade or bone carving, before tossing each back into its display box. After a couple of hours our host’s wife, a princeling in her own right, arrived home. Clearly tipsy, she was eager to show us her prized possessions, which included a framed photograph of her shaking hands with a grinning Bill Clinton.
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