WASHINGTON'S recognition of the government in Peking has brought with it high hopes, indeed wild dreams, of fat bank accounts, swollen corporate treasuries and a robust foreign exchange surplus. I wish all the hustlers well, but, this time around, will be content to regard their treasure hunt as a spectator sport. For I am older and wiser now than I was 30 years ago during the halcyon days of the Far East Economic Consultants corporation Limited.
The corporation was born and, in due course, died during Friday lunch at a corner table in the Peking Restaurant in Chevy Chase. Its founders, officers, shareholders and staff consisted of myself and five other hopers and dreamers. As we boasted in our promotional literature -- a few typescript pages reproduced in about a dozen copies -- two of our group had been long-time residents of China before the war and spoke fluent Chinese, five were ex-OSSers in China during the war, four were card-carrying economists. What we failed to mention was that none of us could have passed the then acid. test of competence in any endeavor. We had never met a payroll.
Our aspirations wer reasonably modest: one major contract. With that in hadn, we'd all quit our jobs and make our fortunes consulting and advising, importing and exporting. If memory serves, we never did get around to incorporating; perhaps that, too, was to await the first contract. But we had an acronym which we thought of using on our stationery. We did, however, use it for our cable address. The acronym was "FARCO," which, for reasons that escape me now, we regarded with great hilarity.
The decision to establish a cable address followed the discovery that one of our Old China Hands had appointed an ex-school chum to be our agent in Shanghai. The first the rest of us heard of him came when, after we had settled whether the juadz should be steamed or fried, Charles read us a telegram (collect) from Mr. Chen asking reimbursement for several meals. Apparently he, too, conducted FARCO's affairs from a table in a Chinese restaurant. In any case, we now had Our Man in China and that called for a cable address.
MAGIC transformation from junior civil servants into China trading magnates loomed as a consequence of two probes a few months after we had organized, so to speak. If I ever did know how we came to the attention of the sleek-looking men who contacted us, I've long since forgotten. But, one day, we found ourselves in a suite at the Hay-Adams Hotel being taken seriously by a representative of, I think, Republic Steel. I don't remember whether he wanted to buy or sell, but whichever it was, we agreed to look into it.
The second close brush with destiny occurred a few days after. If came from -- fasten your seat belts! -- the Coca Cola Company. Wuould we help them get a franchise in China?
It was all very heady, but none of us was sufficiently interested to take a few day's leave to figue out how to proceed. We did, of course, devote some time to the matter on the following Friday over soft noodles and beer. We duly cabled Mr. Chen about two deals. He duly cabled back (collect) that he was "investigating" and included another bill for entertainment expenses. His investigations, such as they were, came to naught.
At last came a specific proposition -- nothing very glamorous, nothing to set the juices of greed or ambition to flow. But it could be a beginning. And we had to begin somethwer if we were to put FARCO on the map of Asia. One of us learned of a Washington wholesaler who had suddenly found himself stuck with a hundred gross of surplus white GI socks. He would, we were assured, unload them for a pittance. Ater some research on how many pairs of socks were in a gross, we agreed that we would close the deal. We cabled Mr. Chen with the good news immediately after lunch (about 3:30, if we were on schedule.) His answer was prompt: "White worn here only for mourning. Anyway, GI feet too big. Stop. Please stop."
We stopped. and not a moment too soon. Mao's forces were soon overrunning all of China north of the Yangtse.
At our final meeting we decided that the Communists would be unlikely to buy anything we had to sell. EARCO was interred with all due ceremony. We counted ourselves lucky to have gotten out of the venture with only a score or so of non-deductible lunches, 14,400 pair of white socks, and about a $50 bill from Western Union. Whether Mr. Chen was ever reimbursed, I cannot say.
Secretary of Commerce Juanita Kreps has recently warned American business against exaggerating the prospects of trade with China. For this entrepreneur-manque , at least, her admonishment has come too late -- three decades too late.