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Monday, March 16, 2015

Driving in New Zealand . . .

the following is a column I wrote for publication today, and a serious problem in my home country:

Tourist drivers seen as hazards in NZ

By Tracie Barrett

I had a close encounter with a Chinese gentleman in New Zealand over Spring Festival, although I didn’t initially know he was Chinese.

I was driving a steep, twisting road above Lake Hawea in Central Otago – a stunningly beautiful area and one I know well. My speed was just under the limit to allow for the challenging road and possible hazards.

Judging by the anecdotes of friends and stories in local media, the most frequent hazards on New Zealand’s roads these days are tourist drivers. During Lunar New Year, many of those were Chinese.

In that encounter, a large motor home pulled out to pass on a blind corner in a series of twists and turns, then started to pull back in before being even halfway past my vehicle.

Primed for such driving when I saw the rental vehicle in my rear view mirror, I braked and the huge piece of hard metal and motor missed my car by mere centimeters.

Five minutes later, I rounded another turn to see the offending driver pulled over at a lookout point, enjoying the view with no idea how close he had come to crushing my vehicle and myself into a rock wall. I pulled alongside, ascertained he was Chinese but spoke English and explained what he had just done and impressed on him that the beast he was driving was much wider and longer than he realized and that he would kill someone if he continued driving that way.

I hope he did not, but in the two weeks I was home, eight people died in vehicle accidents involving tourists. One of these was a 5-year-old girl, killed when a pickup truck driven by a Chinese tourist collided head-on with the station wagon her family was in. The driver has been charged with dangerous driving causing death and four counts of dangerous driving causing injury, as the girl’s parents and two sisters were hospitalized after the crash.

Obviously, not all road accidents in New Zealand are caused by tourists, and not all bad tourist drivers are Chinese or Asian. However, as more Chinese visit New Zealand (the number more than doubled between 2010 and 2014 and is expected to continue growing), their presence is becoming more noticeable and there is a growing call for changes in the law to keep inexperienced drivers off the roads.

That might have saved two motorcyclists killed by a 20-year-old Chinese woman in 2012 on the second day of her New Zealand holiday. At the inquest last year, it was revealed that the driver had less than one month’s driving experience since getting her license in China and had not driven in at least 10 months.

Until the law is changed, I expect to hear of many more such accidents and more incidents of what has become frequent recently as locals take the law into their own hands – taking the keys off erratic drivers and leaving them stranded on the roadside.

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 . . .