Friday, January 13, 2006

The Seeker
A story I filed today. Dunno if it will survive in print in this informal form, but here 'tis for anyone who's interested.
It was a bit like searching for Elvis, though probably more people in Shenzhen know of Elvis (aka 'The Big Cat' as he's known to the Chinese) than The Great Leader, aka North Korean President Kim Jung Il.
After news reports that the sudden arrival of Kim (or one of his close relatives) had forced the eviction of several hundred guests at the Guangzhou White Swan hotel from January 12 through Monday morning, rumors flew that he would be spending Friday in Shenzhen touring the city's two major telecom firms, ZTE and Huawei, and possibly taking a breather at the swank Kylin hotel and villa complex where presumably he could indulge himself in his passion for foreign DVDs.
The assignment was simple. Find Kim. How hard could it be in a city of 11 million, after all? There aren't too many dictators in bushy bouffant hairdos sporting spiffy green jump suits and 12 centimeter platform shoes in an effort to boost their estimated 165cm height to something approximating Great Leader stature.
Official confirmation was nil, of course. According to wire reports, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman in Beijing said he had "no information to offer" on Kim's whereabouts. Russia's Itar-Tass news agency quoted an unnamed in source in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, as saying: "The leader, as far as I know, is at present in North Korea" and added that the mystery visitor might be Kim kin.
I called former colleagues at a Shenzhen newspaper where I once worked, hoping for a leak.
"Who? The president of South Korea?" was one response. Another was more knowledegable regarding world leaders but clueless as to any Kim sightings.
Nonetheless with photographer and translator Simon Song in tow, once in Shenzhen I hired a car driven by a devotee of Tibetan Buddhism who knew more about Kim than the Dali Lama and began the search with an excruciatingly slow traffic-clogged crawl from Lohou east to Nanshen and the ZTE complex.
"He says he has no opinion on the Dali Lama," Song said. "But he says he knows Kim is the leader of an isolated, closed, very poor country who has followed Mao's examples made during the 1970s. He thinks if he's here he might want to learn from Deng Xiaoping's example in creating Shenzhen where it is open and people can live well if they work hard."
Wishful surmising, but he had the basics down. After 45 minutes we arrived at ZTE where we parked in an unguarded, partially full lot devoid of the kind of hustle, bustle and tight security one might expect surrounding a visit by a foreign despot who reportedly loves Rambo and 007 flicks.
In the enormous lobby a receptionist politely told us that no one by that name had been there or was expected.
"Have there been any large groups with many large cars and guards?" I asked.
"She says they have people like here that frequently," Song said. Then I spotted a group of 10 dignified looking foreigners and Chinese entering the lobby.
"Excuse me. Are you here with the Kim Jung Il party?" I asked one western gentleman who looked at me as if I was either deranged or simply slightly mentally impaired.
"No," he said after a short pause, addressing me in the same patronizing tone one might use with a child asking if he'd just arrived from Jupiter. "I'm afraid not."
The next stop was the Kylin hotel/villa complex. A 42,000 square meter complex of buildings -- one hotel and five private villas -- set in a near-fairyland of 380,000 square meters of immaculately tended greenery. "[It] is the important reception base of the Shenzhen Party Committee and Shenzhen Government responsible for the reception of the Paty [sic] and State Government leaders as well as serving all circles of society," according to a sign at an entrance where an unarmed, bored security guard waved us through without a second look.
"I'm guessing the Great Leader didn't sleep here. At least he won't be tonight," I said.
The villas appeared vacant and a large welcome banner over the hotel's entrance greeted ""Important government leaders to inspect Shenzhen road blueprints."
Still we needed confirmation and a trio of hotel maids -- identified by name tags as numbers 052, 026 and 109 was flagged down.
"In the US you could slip one of them $20 and maybe get some some inside information," I told Song.
"Here you can just ask them," he replied.
Strangely, 052 and 026 had never heard of the man who the North Korean state news agency has routinely referred to as someone who "advances the world's people toward the bright morrow under his guiding light and as the brilliant commander of the Songun revolution."
Number 109 stuck to the Kylin company line, however. "She said that her responsibility is not to ask about their guests," Song said. Good enough.
Last stop Huawei, a mega-complex the size of a small city-state on the northern edge of Shenzhen where we arrived in time to see employees streaming out after their shift.
No limos. No guards. A receptionist was polite, friendly and ultimately no help -- though she made the cursory effort to check her computerized visitor/VIP list and schedule.
"She said no one by that name has been here today."
It was then that I realized that the Great Leader's guiding light probably never flickered in Shenzhen at all.
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