Media: 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
Bestic, Richard, The Independent (London, England)
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 pounds 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. …