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China 2006

Am I being watched?

Brett Neely Jan 7, 2006

It’s my first visit to China. And I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Would we have government minders buzzing around us at all times? Would the mike be yanked out of my hand if we went somewhere without permission?

Turns out, the answer’s been no – so far. A couple of days ago, we were down in the Shanghai subway recording some sound without our official escort. After about an hour of running around the system with microphones, I noticed two policemen staring at us. We kept on taping but in the back of my mind I thought, “they’re going to find some pretext to shut us down.”

About five minutes later, someone in uniform came up to us and started speaking in Chinese. Fortunately, Kai speaks it pretty well and a conversation ensued. The man asked us to record in a spot that wasn’t quite as busy – he didn’t want us potentially holding up throngs of people. Fair enough – we moved 20 feet away and were undisturbed for the rest of our session.

But even if the authorities aren’t watching you – plenty of others are. This is an economy with an enormous surplus of cheap labor. At every restaurant and hotel you go to, there are three times the number of staff that you’d see in the US. Halfway through your meal, someone will come and give you a clean plate. Your food is passed through three different servers before it reaches you, etc.

At our hotel, the housekeeping staff pay close attention to our comings and goings. See, we’ve been working a lot from our rooms and are often around when they’d do their normal rounds. But if I leave with my coat on, even for half an hour, someone obviously takes note, because my room is cleaned when I get back.

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