Banned in the PRC, I've been -- banned, in the PRC now ...
OK -- Springsteen I'm not. But as the sands of the hourglass trickle me back to D.C., it's time to share a few facts about this journey I haven't been talking about because I'm here on a journalist visa and in an extreme case, the People's Liberation Army could Shanghai me back to America whenever they want to. Not that that is in any way likely. A less-than-honest reporter could play up the element of danger to make this whole trip seem more adventurous and exotic than it actually is, but I'm trying to be honest here, and honestly, I haven't faced anything that would even make James Bond get out of bed, much less reach for a martini (shaken, not stirred, right?).
Honestly, the most unsafe I've ever felt on this trip was last night, when for the first time I checked into a hotel and immediately checked out. Maybe it was the woman in the thigh-high mini dress standing in the hallway, chattering on her cellphone. Maybe it was the man who ran past me as the woman drew near, waving his arms and screaming for no apparent reason. Either way, I decided that the place wasn't worth its $10 savings, and I immediately fled to the nearest Home Inns, the cTrip-run budget hotel chain I am convinced will be in Topeka someday because it's awesome.
China, by and large, seems like a pretty safe place. Much of this, of course, is because a giant state security apparatus is always watching people. And they're especially watching me, the blonde guy with the heavily scrutinized J-2 visa, and I'm not too hard to pick out in a crowd.
Thus far, I've seen no signs of being followed. I also doubt my phone has been tapped, as my cell phone was bought for me by a Chinese -- leaving no record of me owning my number -- and I never call from hotels. I'm pretty sure my belongings have been searched at my hotel. And one night I forgot to log off my laptop and left it at the office. When I came back the next day my Web site records showed visits made during middle-of-the-night hours when no one from the bureau would be around.
The biggest nuisance, overall, has been the Internet -- namely, this blog. I hereby apologize for any broken links, weird photos or odd typography that may persist on the blog. This blog, you see, is banned in the PRC. The entire time I've been writing this, I've never been able to call it up on my computer by simply typing http://ozblog.blogs.com. The service that hosts it, Typepad, is reportedly blocked by the Chinese government. (They'll never confirm or deny that's what's happening.) Because of this I can write entries, and I can post, but I've wasn't able to figure out how to read my own blog on my own computer in China until two days ago I stumbled on http://www.stupidcensorship.com, a site that takes blocked material and de-blocks it using whatever mysterious black magic they use to do such things. (Of course, my site views can still be traced, so even though I can see the blog through the site, it's also clear to whomever may be monitoring me that I'm looking at things I'm not supposed to be viewing.)
I did see the blog once, last week, in a Beijing apartment complex that hosts a lot of foreign visitors -- some new friends showed me the blog, which allowed me to make a couple changes. I also have readers in Fujian province, which isn't far from Hong Kong -- I'm thinking server access may be freer there. And I have some stupidcensorship readers too, as evidenced by a Google search under my name.
So mostly I've been blogging blind. Access to other Web sites is weird too. The rule of thumb is, if it's critical of China's government, you can't read it. But I've been able to get any news story I've wanted, including AP stories about Bush criticizing China, etc. Kansas.com is readable from China (though not my blog, and not several other Knight Ridder papers). It may be that English-language sites aren't as controlled. But try reading any English-language site that mentions "Tiananmen Square," on the other hand, and that impression is dispelled quickly.
Such is life in a control-freak country, and it's challenging, to say the least. Every request becomes a complex negotiation, and some interviews I've wanted badly were simply impossible. Some newly discovered resourcefulness, and some dumb-luck kindness from strangers to whom I owe a lot, has helped me pull through. When all is said and done, I got what I came for.
That doesn't mean that every interview I do get is a canned government message. To the contrary, many of the conversations I've been having are as candid, if not more so, than I would expect to encounter in the States. It may be that, once the pressure of simply getting the interview has passed and all the questions have been parsed and perused, the pressure on the subject to be "on message" isn't as great. In America, getting the interview is easy, but from the moment you sit down with someone, the corporate PR people are watching everything you and the subject says. (I suspect that many people in American corporate PR would have made fine PRC bureaucrats had only they been born in China.) So in some ways I've found the culture to be surprisingly more open than I would have thought.
Those details aside, that doesn't obscure the much larger truth here: The country I'm dealing with is tougher to crack than the one I'm used to, which would be true even if my Mandarin were fluent, which at this point is a fantasy. Is China still the hermit worker's paradise of Mao? Absolutely not. Is it still often closed, tough and frustrating? Yes.
It's a learning experience. But that's why I'm here -- to report. To learn. To grow.
To be a cool rockin' daddy in the PRC.
Banned in the PRC ...