While this tale may be apocryphal (and the person who told it insisted that it wasn’t), it represents the extreme of what some foreign investors encounter as they negotiate Chinese bureaucracy. As one executive of a financial MNC put it recently, "We get approached by all kinds of people claiming to have important connections that can enable us to do this or that …"
In the 1980s, before the individual banking, insurance and securities regulators had been formed, foreign insurance companies came to China in search of a way into the domestic market.
Not knowing whom to call on in the Chinese authorities, they went to the People’s Bank of China which, in the absence of anyone else, was theoretically responsible for insurance.
"Who can we talk to about insurance?" they asked on arriving. They were initially greeted by that glaze of incomprehension and general disinterest (copyright all Chinese state-owned enterprises) until one bright spark piped up, "Hey, you can talk to me."
It is quite possible this bright spark was responsible for nothing more than cleaning the PBOC toilets – certainly not for governing access to the insurance sector – but he saw an opportunity for a few free dinners.
For quite some time, he was wined and dined by foreign executives, perhaps even blagging a trip to the US so he could "get a real understanding of what they had in mind in terms of operations".
Eventually the penny dropped and the embarrassed foreign insurers cut him lose. This bright spark didn’t walk away with an across-the-board pension package, but he was probably able to dine out on his experiences a few times – in addition to the free dinners he’s already eaten on the foreigners’ tab, of course.