A Questionable Storm

RMB 4 million. That’s four million yuan. Roughly $500,000 in American dollars. I’m told it was never spent. That the rockets were never launched, the planes never flew. The clouds never seeded.

Pouring rain. Sheets. Buckets. Walls of water. Pouring straight down. Like I’ve never seen before. One of my mementos is a picture of me standing at the top of the stairs of the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Holding a black umbrella. The only light? The lights of Tiananmen Square barely shining through the water and mist.

To rewind a bit.

20 months of negotiations and planning went into a process. At the end of which was a three-day gathering of the most powerful people in the world.

My plan: Monday, dinner for 1,000 at the Temple of Heaven, a 625 year old imperial temple that had never been used by a private, to say the least, foreign organization for an event. China’s President was schedule to join us for dinner that night. Then he would sit for dinner and an Olympic-level show would follow.

On Tuesday, a dinner at the Great Hall of the People. With the Beijing Symphony Orchestra, a speech by the Mayor and a nightcap atop Tiananmen Gate on the Tiananmen Rostrum.

Four times, permission to use the Temple was revoked. Each time, permission re-granted. The only way to regain permission after the final revocation was for me to move up my plans to head to China.

So I did. With two days notice, I left for 15 weeks in Beijing.

I landed at 6:40 pm and headed into a meeting at 7:30 pm. No shower, not much rest and feeling a bit stressed.

It was a Chinese meeting. A classic one. That ended at 11:45 pm.

The result? We had the Temple back. But there were grave concerns about the weather. Grave concerns? Eight weeks out? The primary concern was wind, if there were Level III winds, we’d move to the Great Hall of the People on the first night and the Temple of Heaven on the second.

After 17 intense months and now moving into the last three, my gut said that the President’s people didn’t want him speaking outside, especially at a place owned by the Beijing Municipality. And the Beijing Municipality certainly wanted to stage their Olympic-level entertainment at the Temple of Heaven, their own spectacular special place.

At the end of the meeting, I had gotten my second wind. So Jimi took me to our usual end-of-day meeting place — the foot massage parlor. We arrived one minute before midnight, the last possible minute to get in.

During our usual two-hour foot massage, we worked through every alternative, but always returned to the same conclusion. Somehow the Chinese would change our plans. But we would try to keep that from happening. The most important goal was to keep the Temple, no matter what.

In a subsequent meeting, we learned that eight of the central government’s most experienced climatologists had been assigned to forecast on a daily basis for the days of the dinners. Meanwhile, I learned more about wind than I had ever dreamed of knowing. Flags. Knots. Levels. Anemometers. All manner of wind measurement. And the official forecast at the end of each day.

Nine days out. We’re told that the Beijing side was researching the possibility of cloud seeding (this is an actual method of bursting clouds to force rain). If they had to do it, the cost to them would be RMB$4,000,000. They hoped we understood how committed they were. This would force rain over the weekend before, making it clear for us to have dinner at the Temple of Heaven on Monday.

Three days out. We’re told that cloud seeding was impossible as it would require aircraft to fly into forbidden airspace. They didn’t appreciate my question as to how it was to have restricted airspace inside of their sovereign territory. The Chinese air force is restricted from flying into portions of their own airspace?

This sounded similar the “technical” explanation given to us as to why it would be impossible to broadcast the President’s comments in Japanese over the translation system (“there are only four channels — one is natural sound, one is Chinese, one is English, the other one is ‘something technical’ – so there aren’t enough channels for a Japanese channel).

Incensed, I agreed to switch the nights of the events. The Great Hall on Monday, where the President would join us. The Temple on Tuesday.

Back to the beginning of this story:  There I stood. On Monday night. In the pouring rain. Just as predicted by eight climatologists. But this was a natural storm, I was told. The clouds had not been seeded.

Indoors, all was perfect on that night.

I remembered our meeting the evening prior:

We had convened our traditional multi-lateral meeting. Forty people sitting around the table. I sat in the middle, across from the Vice Minister who was the primary coordinator of the 14 central government ministries and departments that were working with us.

At the end, he had handed me an hour-by-hour forecast of the weather. This was different from the forecasts I had received on the previous days. This was an hour-by-hour prediction. The first entry was for four pm of this same day

(Monday), three hours before dinner. It accurately predicted the torrential rains that had taken place.

This defied every almanac, weather forecast and meteorological trending available in either China or the U.S.

With 1,000 things to do the next day (Tuesday), I kept the forecast in my jacket pocket. Each hour, I pulled it out. Each hour, it was exactly correct. Torrential rain … showers … light rain … mist … cloudy … mostly cloudy … perfectly clear and beautiful.

Tuesday evening, I stood on the Danbi bridge and watched the first arrivals at the Temple. Under a perfect blue sky, with a light (Level I) breeze blowing and traditional string music wafting on the air.

Everything that followed that evening, from dinner, to the show, to the incredible weather, was perfect. We had our once-in-a-history event. Beijing had its perfect night at it’s most treasured place.

Everyone had gotten what they wanted.

A perfect night. That followed a perfect storm.

Of questionable origins.