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Interpreting China's high-tech policy--maybe

An in-depth view of China's coal situation, but in Chinese only. Not so fun for an English-only reporter.

BEIJING--It seemed like a pretty good place for stories.

The China Beijing International High Tech Expo, taking place right now, is the Chinese government's showcase for the country's technological achievements. There is an exhibit floor and several sessions, including a two-day symposium on "China's Energy Strategy." Topics include the growth of E85 ethanol, solar power, the coal industry and water. Both government and private sector speakers would appear. Other sessions include an overview of China's high tech exports, R&D and recycling.

China tech expo

It took a number of e-mails and phone calls over several weeks to get the appropriate clearance to attend as a member of the press. It wasn't clear until a day before my flight that I could come to the sessions or even walk the show floor. Even after I got here, I was nervous that I would be kicked out. The organizers wondered where to seat me. They eventually gave me my own table in the back of the auditorium.

But I made it in and could stay, they said. Unfortunately, the interpreters never showed up.

The conference organizers had canceled them. Two and a half hours of comedy ensued. PR representatives would put me in a seat and tell me they'd get back to me. A Western photographer tried to help, but after a while she said, "Look, I really don't care what they say. I just have to take pictures."

Chinese people who had sympathy would pull colleagues over to help. A conversation in Chinese and limited English would ensue, but answers invariably turned out the same: "Sorry, no" or "Try the third floor" or "Please, sit down." Everyone was nice, and as confused as me, but there wasn't a lot they could do. They had jobs too and most, understandably, didn't understand what I was saying. But it was pretty clear there were no translators for hire.

The person who ran the business center, who spoke some English, said she could rent a headset for simultaneous translation, but, whoops, there wouldn't be anyone at the other end that could listen to the conference in Chinese and then speak English over the headset to me. Next door, a conference of eye surgeons was taking place. Unfortunately, all of the translators were booked, and the big event of that conference--a live surgery--was coming up.

In the hallway, I finally found a well-dressed Western exec with a Chinese representative from his office. "I was wondering if you could help me," I implored as I poured out my story.

He was in the same boat. He was with Siemens, one of the sponsors. The night before, he was told the translators had been canceled. He sat next to a local resident from his company who knew some English but not enough to translate. So he was basically killing time.

"Do you know any college kids who want to earn some money today?" he asked his colleague. It was Saturday. She shrugged.

As I left the building dejected, another Westerner approached. He was from a car manufacturer and he said he needed my help....