Richard Bestic: Just don't call me Big Nose...

China is opening up to foreign businessmen but is still closed to free journalism. Sky News's Richard Bestic, who recently left Beijing after five years, reports on the cultural and legal barriers facing Western reporters
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The Independent Online

Communist China's propaganda machine is an extraordinary thing. It is heavy-handed and brutally simplistic. George Orwell would recognise every nut and bolt in its cumbersome structure. It is also annoyingly successful - the country's image overseas has never been better.

Indeed, China's reputation has entered a golden era; it is universally regarded as a stable country with a booming economy and, as it takes on the trappings of a regional power, investment is pouring in.

While reporting that type of news was always easy when I was Sky News's Asia correspondent in Beijing, I discovered that there is a distinct etiquette in an extreme regime of media manipulation.

You should never ask job applicants if they are "interested in politics". It's not polite. Nobody in China is "interested in politics", unless of course they happen to be a Communist Party member or a subversive. Most of China's teeming millions don't want to be either.

Although Chinese nationals are banned by law from working in an editorial capacity for a foreign news organisation, I was always keen to employ people who had a good understanding of journalism. And there are many colleges in China teaching journalism.

Hailed as a "model student", my Chinese assistant was ordered to return to university to receive her diploma - a successful end to five years hard study. But she was informed she must spend a week in quarantine on campus because of Sars. Bemused, I told her to ask why.

The question threw college masters into a red rage. Her audacity was not to be tolerated. Five years of journalism school and they'd succeeded only in purging a "W".

Sometimes in China, I found messages teetering between the absurd and the obscene. I can remember standing on the steps of the Great Hall of the People in Tiananmen Square, gazing down on the biggest collection of Ferrari sports cars I'd ever seen: communists flaunting capitalist baubles in the political heart of the nation, in order to mark 10 years of Ferrari sales in China. Days before, a man had been sentenced to three years in jail for attacking socialism. If those driving the propaganda machine were a little embarrassed by the irony of it all, nobody was saying.

But it's in the area of coverage by foreign news crews that China is particularly successful. They even make a little money on the side from eager news organisations desperate to send home images of a mysterious land.

Whenever I wished to cover a story in China, I would first need permission from officials. If they agreed, I would be obliged to take along a "minder" at £55 per day - plus money for food and hotel accommodation.

And there's no such thing as a "one minder" policy in China. Sometimes, when crossing boundaries, the growth in the minder population would necessitate the hiring of a small bus.

Some of these minders could be deeply irritating. On one occasion, the Sky News crew and I spent days filming a wacky scientist who claimed to have found a cure for Aids by crushing cockroaches. A delightful story of complete nonsense, we finished the shoot needing simply to film a cockroach farm.

It was at this point our handler looked studiously at an official form held in his hand and solemnly told us we had made no request to film cockroaches. He told us cockroaches would give a negative image of China and he could not possibly allow it.

It is not unusual to be refused permission to cover a story in China. The reasons vary, but they don't really matter. Lazy officials would often say "no" for what they called "a variety of reasons". My favourite was the universal "it is not convenient at this time".

The strangest refusal was quite recent. I thought I had discovered China's very own Loch Ness monster, contentedly swimming in the flooded mouth of a dormant volcano between China and North Korea. Among those who had sighted the creature was a political commissar of the People's Liberation Army - surely not a man given to flights of fancy - and I began to dream of filming on the banks of the glorious Lake of Eternal Beauty.

Sadly, it was not to be: my request was met with a double-barrelled "no". Apparently, coverage of the monster would also give a negative image of China. Officials added, after a short breath: "And anyway, the creature doesn't exist."

The frustrations of working under Chinese government reporting restrictions, though, have been far outweighed by the sights and sounds of a land only recently opened to the world. I was often given permission to travel to areas where foreigners had not been seen in a dozen generations.

The arrival of a news crew in China's vast and remote hinterland would be a cause for extraordinary excitement among local residents. While covering a story about the cave people of Shaanxi province, huge, curious crowds gathered round us. To them we were dabizi - big noses - strange and exotic beasts of whom they knew nothing. Any rapid movement by us would cause a flurry of consternation. They were completely unfamiliar with outsiders, and concerned because they had no idea of what we were doing. Those people had never seen a television camera. For television journalists, shooting such virgin territory is a rare experience. There was no "Hello, mum" because nobody understood they were being filmed.

The contrast with my new posting in India couldn't be greater. Here, a TV camera quickly becomes the centre of what looks to the outsider like a spontaneous street party. Shots have to be gathered before the crowd multiplies and the camera lens fills with mischievous, smiling faces. I'm also finding dramatic differences in the reactions of officials. In my short time here, police at all levels have given me the most extraordinary co-operation. In a search for the so-called bandit bride of the Punjab, I've even talked my way into a jail.

My hope is that such openness will help with one of my desired aims for the Sky News bureau in India - that of opening a dialogue between the sub-continent and the millions in Britain who are of South Asian origin.

It'll certainly be different to swap the world's most populous nation for the world's most populous democracy.

Richard Bestic was Sky News's Asia correspondent. Last week, he opened Sky News's India bureau