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Little brother is watching you
by Ralph Jennings

Foreigners, especially those who read too much Orwell, worry about big brother when they first reach China. The cops. The guards. The foreign affairs office. The guy down the hall who stands outside his flat and smiles funny. That click on the phone line isn't just a Beijing Telecom glitch, no way. My friend Mike was afraid to freelance in Beijing for fear one of one of these brothers would turn him in to his Chinese employer, which would terminate his contract and send him back to the United States. When he finally freelanced anyway and nothing happened, he looked back on his two to three years in China and thought holy shit. So it is: Usually, you get away with it. Either the brothers don't know, being too busy playing cards and drinking tea to pay attention, or they know and don't care.
But suppose they get you once every year or two, which is the case with reporters. Then you have more to write about, because police busts seldom hurt a legal ID-carrying, cooperative foreign subject. These are detentions, not arrests, as charges are never pressed, jail time is never served and the reporter usually hears nothing further after walking away. In fact these moments can be so full of humor, confusion and awkwardness that you will think little, not big, brother.Last month, a mole for the developer of the East Eight Tract project in Shanghai called the cops when as I was into my second interview with people trying to save their homes from demolition until the developer paid them whatever they wanted. As I sat drinking tea in the developer's command center and chatting off record about the project, a woman from the Shanghai Foreign Affairs Office entered and said I definitely can't do this interview. "And that's just the first thing," she said two or three times, looking at the wall instead of at me or elaborating.A few minutes later eight more people came in, including a uniformed cop who liked to look at the floor, two plain-clothed cops including a guy specially assigned to Japanese media hooliganism, and some foreign affairs loose ends. After several concentric circles of conversation about how I should have a separate permit for these interviews even though Shanghai foreign affairs already cleared me for the international poverty conference, we got to the core, which was someone called the cops and now we need to make a report. So we went out to a waiting police car.
Chinese cops never touch a non-aggressive subject.There were no cages, glass or bars in the cop car.No one applied handcuffs.At the police station, we changed interview rooms because the air con was broken in the first one.The cop who liked to look at the floor gave me a bottle of water. It was OK to answer any mobile phone calls, he said. I took him up on that. That cop would eventually get bored during the three-hour interview and start asking me about the study of Chinese, about the media in a general way and about TV in China. He said he likes to watch police dramas about hard-to-crack cases.You talk with a Beijing accent, another cop said quizzically. He left the room after making that one remark. Not what he wanted to hear in Shanghai, I guess.
The interviewer, a plain-clothed guy who'd clearly gone through this before, asked for a chronology of how I reached East Eight Tract and what I did there. The only thing I wasn't straight about was who told me about the place, since I didn't want that person to get in any trouble, and the extent of information I had gathered before these gentlemen arrived. I erased two photos because the Japanese media hooliganism specialist was making eye contact with the digital bulge in my pocket and suggesting I better not have shot anything. He also followed me to the toilet to pee off the cop's water and the command center's tea, which became quite a load after three hours of questioning. The only stumper was how come I didn't seek approval for the East Eight Tract interview. I showed them my poverty conference credentials and said that morning's plenary session was not open to the press, which was true. I said my Foreign Ministry's bluebook on foreign reporter guidelines doesn't get into this level of detail about whether we can cut out of approved conferences for other stories. "Just write, 'doesn't know'," the
Japanese media hooliganism specialist told the interviewer. I was not allowed to keep a copy of whatever I signed.What we all knew but didn't say: Demolition for redevelopment has displaced and cheated thousands of people in old Shanghai, and the would-be aggressors have connections all the way up to Jiang Zemin, former mayor and president.
Even though it's an old story - I was more ashamed to be caught so late than just to be caught -- China doesn't want foreign journalists to report on it.Normally after a questioning, the cop-foreign affairs squad would take the reporter to an airport or railway station after getting my signature under the didn't-know clause and make sure I got on a Beijing-bound train. But because the poverty conference, with its 600 guests from 100 countries, meant a lot to the face of Shanghai, which is building international credibility that it can host World Expo in 2010, the cops called in two more foreign affairs people, one of whom brought my detention to an end. "You shouldn't be doing this without permission, but..." But he let me go so I could return to the conference, which was open to press by late afternoon.
We all apologized for wasting one another's time.About two minutes into freedom, someone from the Foreign Ministry news office called my mobile to say he hoped I was all right and welcome back to the conference.But the conference had been boring on days one and two. Leaders from various Peace Corps-style groups, development banks and dictatorial governments were filling up on Chinese food while talking in platitudes about how the poor should help themselves as long as governments have tried their best. So that afternoon I contacted some more displaced Shanghai dwellers by phone and interviewed them in a coffeehouse instead of amid the rubble for all to see. When I reached the conference center by evening, I found that my gate card had been deactivated, by a technical glitch, I suspect, not the brothers. So I could not cover the conference's curtain-closing or final press briefing.But, just as Mike was free to go on lancing without a knock on his door, I got to spend the next couple of days, longer if I had wanted, finishing up my demolition story and a couple of others unrelated to the conference.


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