Old habits die hard. And one of those old habits for me is adopting a particular plan of action when it looks like I might get detained in China while covering a story.
I was in a factory district of Dongguan city in southern China on Friday morning, snapping photos of workers pouring into an electronics factory.
It took me all of about five minutes to realize I was headed for trouble. Private security guards stared at me fixedly. One disappeared into a stall to make a phone call. I was on a sidewalk of a public street.
Frankly, I was simply trying to get generic photos for a story about changes in the Pearl River Delta region.
I use getting “detained,” by the way, in a broad sense. In China, a private company or factory could as well waylay a reporter as the police.
So as soon as I got the photos I needed, in about seven minutes, I walked away from the scene quickly. No need to tempt fate. Then I returned to my hotel to download the photos and put them in a folder that is not obvious.
I’ve never had anybody forcibly delete my digital photos but many, many journalists have had that experience.
I bring this up because I suspect that things are slowly getting better in China. The latest good news came at about midnight Friday when the Foreign Ministry announced that press freedoms instituted this year for foreign reporters during the Olympics were being extended indefinitely. That means we don’t have to apply with the Foreign Ministry to leave our home base (Beijing, in my case) and we can interview anyone who agrees to the interview.
On paper, this sounds wonderful. In reality, it codifies standard practice worldwide but the implementation often leaves much to be desired. Click here to see a BBC story about how reporters say the press freedoms have changed their work lives.
The Foreign Correspondents Club of China (FCCC) welcomed the news. "If properly implemented, we believe this will mark a step forward in the opening of China's media environment," said club president Jonathan Watts. "We urge the government to ensure that police and local officials respect the spirit as well as the letter of the new rules.”
A statement added: "The FCCC urges China to take further steps including the enactment of legislation protecting news sources, the abolition of rules obliging hotels to report to police when a foreign journalist checks in, and the opening of restricted areas, such as Tibet. We will continue to monitor cases of reporting interference and we remain willing to work with the authorities to improve working conditions for journalists in China."
A dissident rights group with headquarters in New York City, Human Rights in China, also welcomed the rules.
Sharon Hom, executive director of Human Rights in China, said in a statement that the country "should respect its own constitution which guarantees press freedom, a right that many Chinese journalists and writers have paid—and are paying—a great price to exercise."
The group added: “The recent public health disaster resulting from tainted milk power is a devastating example of the consequence of suppressing press freedom. The authorities caused many more deaths by forbidding reporting of the story in July because they wanted to preserve a ‘harmonious’ atmosphere for the Olympic Games.”
What this means on the ground is hard to say.
Barely a month ago, I was in Sichuan province reporting a story about how relatives are clinging to children left orphaned by the May earthquake, unwilling to give them up for adoption. I was with my colleague Richard Spencer of the Daily Telegraph. We were in a hamlet speaking to an elderly couple whose grandson had been put up for adoption. As soon as I felt I had enough information, I felt it was time to get out of there. So I bolted early. Richard sent me a text message a little later on that the village chief had show up and was holding him for several hours.
Is this a detention? Well, who knows what you want to call it. But it is a risk still all over China. And unless reporters have a lot of time to spare, interviews in rural areas are often terse, with reporters looking over their shoulders. The time to move on comes quickly.