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Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Foreign Expert, Take II . . .

About two months back, I was asked by China Daily's Foreign Experts Office if I would attend a seminar scheduled for the week before I was due to fly home to Aotearoa/New Zealand. I happily agreed as such things are usually interesting in all sorts of ways that often have little to do with the assigned topic, and asked for more information. The usual things that concern a journalist - the who, what, when, where and why of what was planned, so I could, in turn, plan accordingly.

The only information initially available was the date. I've lived in China long enough to find this unsurprising - information was so closely controlled here for so long that there remains a tendency to treat everything as a secret to be revealed only when absolutely necessary. As an aside, that can be painful for a writer here, but you learn to live and adapt to what is. A week before the date, I had still managed to obtain little more information than that, but had been asked to flesh out my biographical details for the organizers.

Two days before the event, I was told I would be expected to stay overnight the evening before, despite it being held in Beijing and apparently not far from where I live. By now, this had become an adventure/mystery that highly amused me and I was planning to treat the seminar as an improvisational theater activity. The morning before, I was told I would be provided with a car and driver to take me to the Beijing Foreign Affairs Office and given the number of a contact person. Nobody could tell me where I was staying, which I was mainly curious about to know if there was a gym or pool there.

That evening, my driver delivered me to the Foreign Affairs Office, which turned out to have a hotel attached (with gym and pool) and I learned there was some justification to parts of the secrecy after all. The next day was to be spent with a consultation of foreign experts and ministry officials in the morning, following by transportation to the Great Hall of the People for a symposium and banquet dinner with Premier Li Keqiang.

China consciously tries to learn from the best practices of other countries and, I learned, holds such an event annually to consult with foreign experts both resident in the country or with ties to it. This year's symposium marked the first time English-language media had been invited to attend, I was told by the senior China Daily official also invited.

I was impressed by the surroundings and the food, as one would expect in the building that is the political hub of China, and even more impressed with the attention paid to speakers and questions asked of them by China's number two player. I was equally impressed by the company I found myself in - five Nobel Laureates in Economics, a former ambassador to China from Korea, a former minister of education for the Netherlands, and the women I sat with at breakfast. Asked what they do, one replied, "I build commercial aircraft" and the other is a bio-geneticist researching cancers.

I couldn't help but feel like the Maori gal who'd snuck in the back door and bluffed her way to the head table, but I made sure to smile sweetly and behave reasonably well in case they might want to invite me back some day . . .

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