When Filming in China, We Learned to ‘Take the Deal’

Hollyblog: We learned an easy lesson filming “The China Question” in 2009 — after Wednesday’s Gmail crackdown, that lesson gets harder to explain

For two years friends and colleagues have been asking me what it's like to film in China. Days like yesterday make it that much harder to explain.

We learned Wednesday afternoon that Chinese hackers cracked the Gmail accounts of senior U.S. government officials and Chinese political activists. The announcement came just days before the anniversary of modern China’s most infamous moment, the June 4, 1989, crackdown in Tiananmen Square.

But for every grim story of repression in China there seems to be a counterpoint — gleaming skyscrapers, greater wealth and increased openness.

It was with these contradictions in mind that I landed in China in May 2009 with a five-pound video camera in my bag and editing equipment stashed in someone else’s as I started the process of filming my third self-produced documentary. Friday night's CNBC premiere of "The China Question" (9 p.m. ET/PT) was in the distant future. At that point I simply wondered if they would confiscate my gear; question or detain me. I really wasn’t sure.

The plan was to stay under the radar, my girlfriend and I toting a couple backpacks but no additional crew. We landed in Shanghai, headed towards immigration and were quickly stamped through for 90 days in the People’s Republic.

We were cautious as first, probably more cautious than we needed to be and it eventually became clear our skeleton crew was the perfect way to document today’s China. Gaining official government permission to film there is difficult and restrictive, with a minder shadowing your crew even when you get the go-ahead. But our rig was discreet enough to blend in with the rest of camera-mad China, though sometimes people would notice it was a bit big and politely ask if the camera was very old.

And so we rolled tape on quiet evenings at home and deafening days on the factory floor, capturing the contradictions I had guessed at from afar–the improving daily rhythm of life amid an undercurrent of Soviet-style paranoia.

One afternoon in Beijing we headed to Tiananmen Square to shoot the daily flag lowering ceremony. I set up my lightweight tripod, mounted the camera and felt a tap on the shoulder.

“Passports,” the police officer said and we handed them over.

Anxious moments passed and then he returned. “I can stop filming if it’s not allowed,” I said.

“It’s OK,” he said.

We were Americans with tourist visas who no one in China had ever heard of. That made all the difference and that more than anything explains the Chinese system.

Next week, after "The China Question" has aired and has been flagged by Chinese officials I will not be allowed to film the flag ceremony in Tiananmen Square. I’ll probably find it difficult even to get a visa back into the country, since it’s common practice to denounce even balanced portraits of China like our film.

Until you are on the Chinese radar there is very little that will get you in trouble, either as a Chinese or a foreigner — there are too many people in China to keep tabs on all of them. But once you’ve gained that wrong kind of attention life can get very difficult. That’s when your Gmail account gets hacked, that’s when your visa application gets lost, that’s when your art installation is bulldozed and you go missing.

The incentives — for Chinese citizens and American filmmakers — are clear: Stay on the right side of the government and everything will be cool. It’s not surprising so many take the bargain. But as we traveled across China I sometimes had the feeling this was my one chance to get this right – -not to flinch either at the threat of Chinese retaliation or the easy impulse of simple villain making.

Today’s China is not Stalin’s Russia or even Assad’s Syria and given the choice I’d rather be born today in China than democratic, disorganized India. The Chinese bargain reads like a deal with the devil: Enjoy higher incomes and increased opportunity as long as you accept limits on speech, religion and individual rights. In a poor, collectivist country like China it's not surprising the vast majority agree to those terms.

The bargain offered America is a bit different: Enjoy cheap goods and the potential to sell to China’s billion-plus consumers as long you ignore violations of American values and the slow, steady plunder of America’s technological advantage.

You don’t need to hack anyone’s e-mail to know we’ve taken that deal, too.