Recently we met a descendant of the last Chinese emperor. He was camping. How strange it was to meet this ridiculously high born man in such a lowly place. It was an exceptional encounter which we thought would bear retelling, in view of this weeks announcement by the British Government to remove all Huawie products and services from all telecom businesses operating in the UK.
We were visiting Morocco, motorcycle touring with no plan, and had come to the lagoon town of Moulay Bousselham. On our first afternoon in the stunning campsite a fellow English man turned up in a tatty pickup truck, and we fell into comfortable conversation. In no time at all we had agreed to share an evening meal and the three of us took a sunset stroll to the little market to see what we could find to eat.
Well provisioned, we headed back to the campsite to prepare a feast. Now this guy had it all, a tent on top of his pickup truck, and in the bed of the pickup, under the base of the tent, was stored all his ‘essentials’, accessed by dropping the tailgate. Where we had a simple trangia to cook on, a plate and a fork each and a couple of penknives for food prep, he had the works. Out came a home made, three part bar-b-q, plates and cutlery galore and cooking pans of all descriptions. What his vehicle lacked in style, it more than made up for in substance.
The three of us chatted as we ate a delicious and very simple meal. We agreed that what had caught our eye here on site, was another pick-up truck; pristine, bright, cherry red, with a tent on top, and sporting a blemish free, bright daffodil yellow, sea kayak. This was pure bling. It had Chinese number plates and everything looked brand new. Who on earth owned something like this? What were they doing here?
We went to bed that night full to bursting. The next morning our new friend was gone; we had said our goodbyes the night before, as he had planned a dawn getaway. The super-duper pick-up truck was still on site. We admired it before heading out to explore the lagoon. When we wandered back, there was the cherry red pickup truck, parked outside the campsite cafe. We decided it was time to have a drink and strike up yet another conversation. We stepped out of the sunshine and into the cool, dull gloom of the cafe.
Sitting at a table, facing the door, was a robust Chinese man. As we entered, I said, in my very best, ‘help the foreigner understand’ simple English, “Hello. You have kayak?” Point at the boat on the pickup truck. “We have kayak. We kayak sea,” Point at myself then, wavy hand gesture. “You kayak sea?” We waited, as, saying nothing, he fixed us with a condescending stare. Then on I blundered, “Where you from? We from England.” He pointedly looked us up and down. I began to feel a bit of a Wally as I stood at his table with his contempt washing over me .
He drew a languorous breath, swished a regal hand and asked, “Would you care to join me? You’d be most welcome. Please, sit down.”
His English was flawless, well pronounced and more complex than my first few sentences to him. And so began a long conversation, or interrogation, lasting several hours.
We had stumbled into a trap which has left us pondering the Chinese State ever since. He told us his name; we forgot it, he said that he is a non teaching professor who is married to a professor, who teaches in a German university; we cannot remember which university and finally, he is a direct descendent of the last Chinese emperor; that much we remember about him. He was a drifter, who could come and go from China as he wished, sponsored by the Chinese government. It soon became clear that, what at first seemed to be a flattering degree of interest in us and our lives, was really a quest to garner the zeitgeist of us and the non-Chinese peoples and how we perceived China, it’s people and it’s politics.
It was interesting to hear how the Chinese people had to be governed by a totalitarian state, as they were happy with this and would find it impossible to cope with a full range of choices, should they ever be afforded the chance. The State oversaw all businesses, so no business was fully private. As all business exists for the good of the nation, it is only to be expected that the nation is involved in all businesses. He had difficulty understanding why we found that preposterous. He felt all peoples would be happier if controlled by a paternalistic state. Of course he was looking for a visceral, honest response, rather than a polite, British understatement. The conversation was wide ranging and frank. He was phenomenally well read and intelligent, able to call up any and all facts, figures, international historical details and dates as well as financial and political information, as needed to illustrate his arguments. Academically, he left us standing, and we have our foot on at least one rung of the clever ladder.
So we now knew who owned the red pickup truck and what he was doing here. The emperor’s descendent was wandering the world to find out how the people of other nations, any other nations, would respond to being ruled by a Chinese Government. How hard might it be to subjugate an entire nation? Would it be worth the trouble? Would we, the non Chinese, submit to totalitarianism and, if not, would we at least be happy to keep buying their goods?
We enjoyed the conversation that evening. It is not that often that we have to work hard to answer deep and searching questions whilst parrying with our inquisitor. He was leaving early the next day and he asked that we meet him before he left as he wanted to exchange details. He hoped that we might get together again in the future. He offered to drive with us across Europe and into China. Sadly, by the time we crawled out of our tent, he was gone.
We were relieved. I think we got off lightly.