BEIJING—He was young, smiling, wearing purple track suit pants.
She was middle-aged — old enough to be his mother — and wore a print jacket, with dark slacks and a white sun hat.
“Are you here for the church service?” the young Chinese man inquired.
Yes she was, the Chinese woman nodded.
“Well you’ll have to register over here,” he said, and pointed off toward a waiting police van.
The woman hesitated for a moment and seemed to totter. Then several men, who also looked like plainclothes police, surrounded her and corralled her toward the van.
Just as she was getting in and about to be driven off, I decided to take a picture.
That’s when police surrounded me.
I was filmed, photographed, asked for my passport with my journalist’s visa, as well as my press card, and handed them over.
All were returned — except for my press card. An officer said, there “might” be a problem with it. No explanation was given.
It was about 8:30 a.m. Beijing time when I arrived in the city’s northwest precincts to see a group of Chinese Christians conduct a planned Sunday service outdoors, in plan view — a rarity in this country.
But followers of Beijing’s Shouwang Church said they had no choice but to worship outdoors since they had been evicted from their rented premises — and blocked from occupying a new site that they’d purchased with the equivalent of $4 million of their own hard-earned money 15 months ago.
The government was “interfering” with their constitutional rights of religious freedom, they claim on their website.
In Chinese terminology Shouwang is an “underground church,” because its 1,000 followers worship without the blessing of the Communist Party government.
The government allows some Christian worship in China — but only churches it approves and oversees.
Still, tens of millions of Chinese Christians daringly worship independently of Communist control, and Shouwang is among them.
“You’ll have to come with us,” a policeman said after I had taken my photo.
“Under what law or regulation are you preventing me from doing my work?” I asked.
“I will tell you,” he said.
“Well I’d like it if you’d told me now,” I replied. “I have the right to do my proper job as a journalist.”
“I will tell you,” he said with greater volume. “Now come with us!”
I was not roughed up, but a group of police held, pulled and “guided” me out from the plaza where the aborted service was supposed to take place. We walked a couple of blocks to a nondescript building and down a grotty stairwell toward a basement room. A suitable table and set of chairs couldn’t be found there, so we headed up and out toward 15 Zhongguancun Rd., a private building with a small security room.
Along the way we passed scores of police, both uniformed and plainclothes who were shooting video of anyone who passed by.
Finally, I was seated in a tiny room, a camera was set up and turned on, one policeman sat at a desk to take notes, another asked questions and a third observed.
I asked if I could tape the interrogation and was told that I could not.
Then, despite having filmed or photographed all of my documents, we began with a review of all of their contents again.
Then I was asked, why did you come here today?
I had heard an event was about to take place, I said, and I wanted to observe it.
How did I know about it, I was asked.
I had read the church’s website, I said.
Did I know it was illegal to interview people without their permission?
I was not interviewing people, I said.
But did I understand that it was illegal to interview people in Beijing without their permission or the permission of the people for whom they work.
I was not interviewing anyone, I repeated, and I would seek clarification from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs about its regulations.
At one point I asked one of the police, “Am I being detained?”
No, the officer said, you are not being detained.
Well if that was the case, I said, then I’d be heading off.
It was made plain — in no uncertain terms — that I was not going anywhere.
Well, if I wasn’t being detained, I said, we could take this session across the street to a restaurant and continue it there.
Again, it was made plain: no one would leave the room.
The policeman doing the questioning was wearing an earpiece and communicating with someone off-site who was passing on questions from time to time.
Then the policeman said: We’d like you to delete the photographs you took today.
I had taken several photographs, including of policemen photographing me, and those photographing my documents.
I was not keen to comply. But I also understood that I had none of the rights that I would have in a similar situation in Canada or the United States or any Western country for that matter. In such countries, I wouldn’t expect to be kept in a room in a private building either for showing up at an event and taking a photograph.
I deleted the photographs as the policeman leaned over to verify that they were in fact deleted. And then he demanded that I quickly review all the photographs currently on the camera to reassure him that the photos I had taken Sunday were in fact deleted.
I complied with that demand, too.
When it came time to review the contents of my interrogation, it was read out loud to me and included a phrase that said I took all “legal responsibility” for the contents of the interview — and it was then that my ears really perked up. Everything would have to be reviewed with utmost care.
And so I did for each of the four pages.
The imagined or mistaken part in which the transcribing policeman had me apologizing for doing my job was then deleted. I had not done so and would not do so, I said. And so the detailed review of my “interrogation” proceeded.
Until a fourth policeman showed up and began shouting.
You’re wasting our time, he said. You don’t need to read this back three or four times. This is ridiculous! Ridiculous, he shouted.
It wasn’t in the least ridiculous, I said. If I, as an employee of my company, was to take legal responsibility for the contents of a policeman’s notes, I had a responsibility to take proper care.
This has nothing to do with your company, he shouted. This is about you, he said, waving his finger.
I reviewed the transcription for a final time, and then they asked me to sign the statement.
Will I get a copy for my records, I asked?
No you won’t, the loud speaking policeman said.
“This isn’t bargaining,” he shouted. “You’re not at the market.”
But how can I be expected to sign a statement and not leave with a copy, I asked.
That’s the way it’s done in China, I was told.
Chinese citizens don’t get copies, he said. You’re not getting a copy either.
Then, suddenly, he left the room and returned moments later demanding my camera.
I had deleted the photos, I said, and those deletions were verified.
He didn’t care and grabbed for my camera and there ensued a little tug-of-war.
After a few minutes he said I could remove the battery as well as the disk.
We only want to take a photo of it, he said.
I complied again, but insisted I come with him.
But no, I was told, I would not be allowed to come with him.
The camera was returned in a few minutes. Whether anything odd was done with it, I can’t say.
But after complying with all the requests, I was informed I’d be leaving without my government-issued press card.
I called the Foreign Ministry and spoke with official, Zhou Li, informing her that the police had confiscated my press card.
“That really shouldn’t be possible,” she said, saying that she would look into it.
The card is issued by the Foreign Ministry and is, in fact, their property.
I had been detained for three hours, interrogated, asked to delete photos and had my press card seized.
An interesting day, but still — nothing compared to the detention of dozens of churchgoers, and the detentions, arrests and disappearances of lawyers, writers, activists and an artist named Ai Weiwei in recent weeks.
BEIJING—Chinese police returned a government-issued press card to a Toronto Star journalist Tuesday, issuing a formal warning that “further violations” of Chinese reporting regulations could lead to “punishment,” including cancelling his visa.
The press card, a separate document also necessary to conduct journalistic work inside China, was seized Sunday by police during a three-hour detention and interrogation session, after the Star photographed police rounding up Christian worshippers as they arrived for an outdoor religious service in Beijing.
Chinese authorities said the service was illegal, since the church — known as Shouwang, or “The Watchtower” — is not approved by the ruling Communist government.
And police claimed that by simply taking photographs without prior permission from local authorities that the Star had violated China’s press regulations.
That interpretation, if strictly enforced, would rewrite the slightly relaxed media regulations that were introduced in 2007, just before the 2008 Olympics.
“It sounds like a reversion to how things were in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when we were frequently detained and threatened with visa non-renewal if we did not behave,” says Rebecca Mackinnon, a former CNN journalist, who is now senior fellow at the Boston-based New America Foundation.
The squeeze on journalistic activity here in recent weeks accompanies China’s biggest rights crackdown in a decade.
It has come in the wake of revolutions rocking North Africa and the Middle East, which have made authorities here nervous.
China’s powerful internal security apparatus, which already commands a bigger piece of the national budget than China’s military machine, is believed to be gaining ever greater clout inside the corridors of Zhongnanhai, the Chinese equivalent of the White House.
Reports say the state’s security czar, 68-year-old Zhou Yongkang, a member of the Politburo Standing Committee who commands the police and the courts, is growing even more powerful.
On Tuesday, during another interrogation by police, the Star learned that the current tightening of media restrictions could turn on the translation and interpretation of two Chinese characters: “cai fang.”
According to an English translation on the foreign affairs website, “cai fang” means “interview.”
Hence, the English translation of the key reporting regulation reads, “A foreign journalist who intends to interview organizations or individuals in China needs to obtain their prior consent.”
The Star conducted no interviews Sunday, but took only photographs.
But on Tuesday, police insisted “cai fang” included photography and a range of journalistic activity — not just interviewing.
Chinese dictionaries indicate that “cai fang” means to gather or to look, but when used in connection with news gathering, some say it can mean interviewing, as well as taking notes or photos, filming and tape-recording.
Mackinnon recalls that in the China of the 1990s she and her CNN crews would occasionally get detained for filming and interviewing on the streets.
“Once we were detained for interviewing bystanders right before president Bill Clinton’s motorcade was scheduled to drive by,” she says. “At that time the police included filming and taking pictures in their definition of ‘cai fang.’ ”
Recent graduates of Chinese journalism schools say the precise meaning of “cai fang” isn’t clear.
“There is no real, clear-cut definition of ‘cai fang,’ ” says one, “even among academic circles.”