Stop the Press!
Tonight, however, Sam and I finally got to sit down and have dinner with a journalist (who will remain nameless) who was very generous with her time and honest about the situation for the press here.
She told us that, after a period of relative press freedom during the late 1990s, the Party has cracked down again on the press in recent years. The Sars crisis and its coverage by Chinese and foreign press was an important moment, as it was a stark reminder to the Party of the damage they could suffer at the hands of a free press. Previously, our dinner companion had became well known for her investigative reporting of corruption, but she has now been banned from writing this kind of thing. She told us that when the North Korea nuclear story broke the other day, the editors of the main newspapers received a call from the Propaganda Department explicitly telling them not to publish any stories; all coverage would go through the official channels.
Reluctant to move into the 'safer' areas of journalism, such as financial reporting, she is resigned to (but not happy) writing harmless stories that will not provoke the anger of the Party machine. Recently, for example, the lead story of her newspaper (kind of Independent meets New Statesman) was a special report on Chinese tea specialities. Not exactly cutting edge stuff.
It's funny, but the longer we're in China, the more we're understanding about the people and the culture. But equally, it's becoming clearer that the deeper you dig, the more you realise that there are some differences between our countries that are so profound that it sometimes feels almost impossible to find a common point of reference.