Bargaining in Beijing: Zing Went My Strings-Boy, China Is Big!

BEIJING—I’m standing on the third floor of a multi-story shopping center not far from Tiananmen Square known as the Silk Market. It’s sort of like a horizontal version of Canal Street, although this hardly does it justice: There are literally hundreds of stalls spread out over six stories, selling everything from real Chinese silks to questionable jade bracelets to outright fake Rolex and Breitling wristwatches, along with suspiciously new-looking Mao artifacts from the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution.

Entering this place is madness: I’m greeted by a cacophony of vendors, yelling, baying, cajoling, imploring me to visit their stalls for “the best price.” I’m looking for a Chinese-style silk embroidered jacket for my wife, and a bright pink “Suzy Wong” sheath dress for my 6-year-old daughter, at her request. I find both on the third floor.

“So how much?” I ask a young Chinese woman in a red smock, pointing to a beautiful black jacket lined in blood-red silk. The woman scrutinizes me from toe to head—my shoes, my Omega wristwatch (real), the brass buttons on my Paul Stuart blazer—and then pounds some figures into a hand-held Casio calculator. She thrusts it at me.

“Six hundred yuan,” she demands. “Best price. You buying?”

Quickly, I calculate the exchange rate: about $80. I know the jacket would go for hundreds on Madison Avenue. But this is China; it’s probably worth $20. And negotiating is the local blood sport. “Six hundred?” I exclaim. “Are you crazy? That’s ridiculous. It’s insane.” I punch my counteroffer and shove the calculator back. “I’ll give you 100.” At $13, it’s low, but not so low as to be totally insulting. And now it’s her turn for mock-outrage.

“One hundred? Are you kidding me? You’re the one who’s crazy!” She pounds the calculator. “Make it 300, we’re done.”

At this point, I realize we’re both actually enjoying this. She knows I’m going to buy; I know we’re going to reach a sane price. She’s come down to $38.50, but I’m not finished yet. “C’mon!” I reply. “Get serious! I don’t need this. I’ve got a plane to catch. I can get it cheaper on Canal Street.”

Hearing this, the woman’s eyes go wide. “Canal Street?” She swats the words away with a flip of her hand. “It’s rip-off. Cheap Taiwanese crap.”

Stifling a laugh—she not only knows Canal Street but is scornful of it—I go though several more rounds of negotiation until we end up at $22. She’s satisfied; I’m not unhappy. And as she wraps up the jacket, she hands me her business card, which has a Gmail address, a Web page and four cell phone numbers.

So what is China like for a visiting American? In a word, overwhelming. Overwhelming in size, overwhelming in scope, overwhelming in ambition. Some thumbnails:

• The Beijing skyline is filled with hundreds of construction cranes working 24/7 to prepare for the 2008 Olympics. At 4:30 in the morning, two dozen cement trucks are working in a pit, 23 stories beneath my hotel-room window, pouring the foundation for yet another high-rise.

• I attend the live broadcast of a TV awards show—sort of like our Golden Globes—that boasts an audience of 310 million.

• I receive an e-mail from an otherwise worldly friend wondering if I’ve found a restaurant that serves decent spring rolls. My answer: No. But if you’re looking for a Bentley, a Jaguar, a Starbucks double mochaccino grande latte or a Citibank machine, there’s one on every corner.

• In the week before I arrive, Jacques Chirac is here to announce a “historic friendship agreement” that includes billions in trade and the construction of an Airbus factory in Northern China; on the day that I’m due to leave, my entire hotel is made over in an African theme—including an elephant-and-giraffe diorama in the lobby and African art in the elevators—to herald the arrival of 48 African leaders who will announce another “historic friendship agreement” and still more trade deals in the billions.

• The last time I was here, two years ago, the thing that struck me was the number of cars and trucks on the streets of Beijing, and the realization that we (as Americans) were going to be in competition for oil. But this time, I was struck by something else: a sense of Chinese invincibility. In the English-language news, there’s almost no mention of the war in Iraq, the mid-term elections or North Korean nukes; it’s as if they’re side issues (think of Americans covering Britain’s Boer War in 1880) and tangential to the future. It’s the Chinese century. And however an important trade partner we may be, we represent the past.

This comes out in strange ways—like the Chinese investment banker who asked if I was “yet another American” who was going to accuse China of human-rights violations against the Falun Gong, the Dalai Lama, or in its “one-baby” birth-control policy. Or the way I noticed that the word “superpower” was now used with ironic air quotes.

In the movie business, we sometimes use the phrase “the dog that doesn’t bark.” It’s cribbed from a Sherlock Holmes story, meaning that sometimes the things you don’t see—in a movie trailer or a production announcement, for example—are more telling than the things you do see.

In a conversation with a Chinese official about letting more American movies into China (currently there’s an annual limit of 20), I suggest letting every American film in and letting the marketplace decide—whereupon most American movies will fail to find a mass audience, just as they do at home. But the man’s reply brought me up short: “This isn’t about the marketplace. It’s about your culture and its influence. We don’t think it’s positive.”

And thus the dog that doesn’t bark: If you spend time in almost any Asian city—Tokyo, Bangkok, Singapore—you’re bombarded by billboards for American music, American movies or American movie stars hawking everything from cigarettes to cell phones. But not here. Not a single one.

On the way to the airport to fly home, I pass 10 miles of helium balloons and bunting welcoming the African ministers to China. I sail through immigration, although it’s unsettling to be shunted off into special security lanes where people traveling to America—and only America—are subject to extra scrutiny. But it’s just after this, in a gift shop, that the dog does bark: Near the magazines, next to the stuffed pandas, there’s a pile of war toys: F-16 fighters, B-2 bombers and Black Hawk helicopters. All are emblazoned “USAF.”

I’m not saying it’s our legacy. But it’s the first and only time that I see an American flag in China.