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How a question about pride ended an interview in China

Through two reporting trips to China that spanned eight cities, we hoped to cover everything from the country’s powerful president, Xi Jinping, to Chinese art and electric vehicles, to U.S.-China tensions over trade and technology. But what became immediately clear was that, in China, finding ways for officials to open up felt like finding blue sky through Beijing smog.

At the sprawling Shanghai headquarters of Baowu Group, China’s majority state-owned steel behemoth, we set up for an interview in a control room full of video screens showing a factory full of machines, but no people.

There stood Huang Weiliang, BaoSteel’s director of strategic planning and technology. Also there: a BaoSteel interpreter. Our first clue that the interview would not go well was when the interpreter, instead of translating what Huang said in response to the very first question, read from a piece of paper with Huang’s prepared answer. Huang had come ready to repeat pre-set responses, like one of the robots that filled his factories.

Seven questions and 15 minutes later, I asked him whether he was proud to have spent 34 years at a company that, with a lot of state help, became the world’s second largest steel manufacturer. He replied, “I’m done. I’ve answered all the questions on this list. I’m done here. When is this gonna end? Take it off.” That’s when he pulled the microphone off and walked away.

We had given him a list of topics ahead of the interview, and apparently he had prepared exactly what he was willing to say—no more, no less. Even an innocent question about pride, it seemed, was off limits.

Out of 180 countries, Reporters Without Borders ranks China 177 for journalistic freedom. Only Eritrea, North Korea and Turkmenistan rank lower. Once we got to China, nobody impeded our work. But the steps we needed to take to travel to China reveal some of the restrictions on journalism inside the country.

Like many countries around the world, you need a visa to report in China. For the last year, we have been discussing our series with the Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C., because we needed their blessing to obtain those journalist visas. We eventually received the visas in order to cover an international forum about the Belt and Road Initiative, which provides the engine for China’s international expansion.

Inside China, our interviews were facilitated by an organization that falls under the authority of a Chinese government ministry. The organization delivered most of our requests, and did not try to alter any of them. During our interviews, we were accompanied by a government minder, a member of that organization, known as All China Journalists Association.

To the credit of the organization and our minder, they helped us interview so many people from so many walks of life throughout the country. The man never interfered, never coached interview subjects, and apologized when Huang Weiliang walked out of our interview. Effectively, though, the government had a hand in shaping much of our trip.

We didn’t restrict ourselves within China’s borders. To understand today’s China, we felt it vital to also report from outside the mainland. We visited or teamed up with producers in Ecuador, Ethiopia and the Philippines, where Chinese technology companies are exporting a system of surveillance and city management known as “smart cities”; Indonesia and Malaysia, which receive Chinese infrastructure investment; and Turkey, home to thousands of Muslim Uighurs who fled China.

In those places, China’s critics describe Belt and Road Initiative projects as debt traps and China’s attempts to take advantage of corrupt governments. They say the detention facilities for Uighurs that China calls “re-education camps” are actually prisons for brainwashing. And the critics call “smart cities” “authoritarianism in a box.” In Hong Kong, pro-democracy activists say Xi is restricting the city’s autonomy. If we had not reported from outside mainland China, we would not have heard those criticisms.

As for Huang Weiliang, you can see him in our story about the Belt and Road Initiative, describing how, if the Initiative makes other countries more prosperous, BaoSteel will benefit. It was, as far as I can tell, a genuine answer. But it is also the state’s line.

Sticking to the script, it seems, is the only safe play for most people in China who answer an American journalist’s questions — even the most innocent.

WATCH: China’s massive Belt and Road initiative builds global infrastructure — and influence

Correspondent Nick Schifrin, producer and cameraman Eric O’Connor and producer Dan Sagalyn teamed up with Beijing-based correspondent Katrina Yu for a 10-part series, “China: Power and Prosperity,” about today’s China and its relationship with the U.S. The series is airing on the PBS NewsHour, and you can watch the segments online.