Hong Kong - Before we left Charleston, we wondered whether the Chinese government would dispatch a minder to observe our interviews and follow our movements. Foreign reporters must get special visas, which among other things, meant we had to get an official invitation from the Chinese government to enter the mainland. (Hong Kong has no such requirements.) Alan had to list every piece of camera equipment he planned to carry. It's much easier to get a tourist visa, and some had suggested we simply enter as tourists, but we decided from the beginning that we would follow the rules and see what happened. So when we passed through customs a week ago, I half-expected some stone-faced official to be waiting for us.
The opposite was the case. Going through customs was speedy, and the customs officials smiled when they saw Alan's list of equipment as if to say, "Look at what they made these poor saps do." During the next week, we never had any minders or any restrictions on what we could ask or how we could move about. The people we talked to have been very open about any topic we brought up,including politics and the environment.
Still, it's clear there's no First Amendment here. Last week, Chinese government leaders met in Beijing, and the Hong Kong newspaper, South China Morning Post, reported how mainland journalists were forbidden to write about certain topics. The newspaper also carried a story about how the Chinese government has an elaborate program to censor web blogs. One business leader told us that a U.S. magazine mentioned his company, and that a Chinese newspaper translated it but took a few sentences out of context, forcing him to spend hours and hours mending fences with government officials.
All in all, mainland China has an adolescent feel; It's increasingly sophisticated, growing fast, frenetic and very conscious of its image and how others feel about it. Meanwhile, strict parents stand in the background, ready to ground you in a heartbeat if you go too far. How this relationship evolves will be fascinating to watch.