There’s something about our China project that’s been bugging me for a while. And I couldn’t really put my finger on in it until one night in Shanghai a couple of weeks ago.

I was getting ready to go out to meet someone for a story, and I had CNN International on the TV in the background as I was getting dressed.  The news went on by without really making much of an impression.  Until the anchor started reading the introduction to a report on a visit to China by a United Nations human rights official.  And then, as he said something like ‘The United Nations today found torture in Chinese prisons is widespr…’ the screen went blank.  Three minutes later, it came back on again as if nothing had happened.

They really are watching.

It’s a fact of life that there are more economic freedoms in China than there are political ones. It’s been that way for thirty years – since Deng Xiaoping and the days of “To get rich is glorious.” I’ll leave it to you to make your own value judgments here; whether it’s okay to let people make money if that keeps the political peace.

But it’s a mistake and a misjudgment to think that this is still a communist country. In fact, there’s a case to be made that it’s the most voraciously capitalist country you can imagine. Competition is fierce. Risk-taking in the name of potential profit is practically part of their DNA. There is no risk, after all, when you start from nothing.

Politics, though, are never far from the surface. Depending on where you are, people sometimes won’t talk when your microphone is nearby. Even a casual visitor will notice ‘the government’ around – whether it’s uniformed police forces or something more innocuous. Foreign reporters sometimes have minders following them. It’s a bit like working with somone looking over your shoulder.

And that’s what I was having trouble pinpointing: the feeling someone’s always watching. One the face of it, it’s a political story. But if you take a second and think about it, one of the very real effects is economic. What people can do with their lives. How they can make it from one day to another. What they want to be when they grow up. What they can leave to their children.

Follow Kai Ryssdal at @kairyssdal