HOHHOT, China — I am stranded with five other reporters on a plane that was headed to Beijing but due to a storm ended up 300 miles away, at an airport in Inner Mongolia.
For seven days, we had been led through Shanghai and Hangzhou by two smiling Chinese handlers, a man and woman who ensured we were always well fed and never strayed from a carefully crafted itinerary.
Beijing was the last leg of the trip. We were wiped, but suddenly inspired.
What if we got out of this plane, rented a car, and drove the six hours to Beijing? After days of being ushered from meeting to meeting with Chinese officials and preselected residents, maybe we could finally be spontaneous, take a road trip and talk to regular, everyday people. You know, be journalists!
One of the reporters, a foreign affairs editor, strode up the aisle confidently to make the pitch to our male handler, a middle-aged, bespectacled man who went by Jack.
The editor returned, shoulders stooped. Jack had refused, repeating again and again: “We must follow the arrangements.”
We were invited on this trip by the Chinese United States Exchange Foundation, a nonprofit based in Hong Kong that for years has taken delegations of American reporters from publications like The New Yorker and The Wall Street Journal to China. The idea, according to the foundation, is to give reporters “firsthand and in-depth knowledge of Chinese politics, society, and culture.”
Before we left, one of the trip organizers asked what I wanted to see. I cover legal affairs so I asked to visit judges or a courtroom. Why not explore the system of justice in a country the West often accuses of having none?
Not surprisingly, my interests were not reflected in our itinerary. Instead, I would be meeting with a venture capitalist, a women’s group, and a slew of entrepreneurs, government officials, and professors.
I landed in Shanghai on a hot June afternoon and boarded a bus with the five other reporters, whose beats ranged from foreign affairs to politics to business.
They were all already well-traveled, and judging from the intelligent questions they were asking our handlers, much more knowledgeable about China than I was. I self-consciously clutched my heavy guidebook to my chest, looking like a tourist from 1997, and watched the other reporters fiddle with apps they had downloaded about China.
Shanghai is a city for the ultra modern. Even through the smog, it gleams with silver, towering buildings that at night glitter with neon lights.
I was anxious to explore it, but our packed schedules would leave us scant time to do much on our own.
Our first meeting was with the Shanghai Women’s Federation, the city branch of the national group charged with protecting the rights of women and children.
We were seated across from half a dozen of the group’s leaders for an “on-background” conversation, meaning we could use the information but not their names.
I looked across at the women, eager to hear compelling stories.
Then, through a translator, the leader of our meeting proceeded to read page after page of prepared remarks, a dry recitation of the group’s history that went on for more than half an hour.
“Women have completely equal rights,” the leader said. All complaints of mistreatment, including sexual harassment, are handled expertly by the federation’s lawyers.
My ears perked up.
What does China consider sexual harassment? we asked.
“The lawyers hear about the problems and tell the offenders to stop,” was the steady reply to any question that sought details.
This meeting set a pattern: A conference that looked promising would result in seemingly endless readings of facts flattering to the government but of little news value to us.
“The communist party and the government show us great care,” a retired, 74-year-old farmer told us during a visit to Zhujiajiao, an ancient village on the outskirts of Shanghai. “Every year we’re living a better life and it makes us happy.”
In Hangzhou, at an elegant state dinner with government officials, the topic of bullying came up. How do parents here deal with that?
Our hostess furrowed her brow.
“There is no bullying here,” she said.
Tired of being spoon-fed specious information, we did what we could to take control of the trip.
In Shanghai, the whip-smart, young reporter covering gender issues hit gay-friendly bars defiantly celebrating Pride Week.
In Beijing, the business reporter with an interest in transportation charmed and prodded Jack into letting him off the bus in the middle of a busy street so he could explore the city’s mass transit system.
As for the rest of us, we convinced Jack to cancel all of our free dinners at the hotel so we could at least eat out on our own.
In Beijing, we strolled through an outdoor market where purveyors sold fried scorpions, ate nearly perfect Peking duck at Beijing Da Dong, and dined on the best Vietnamese food I’ve ever tasted at Susu, an intimate, small restaurant tucked at the far end of a hutong, one of the city’s centuries-old alleyways.
Any small rebellion against Jack felt exhilarating: We convinced him to give us an hour and a half instead of just one at the Forbidden City, the enormous palace complex built in 1420. He warned us to keep to the main palaces and ignore the smaller courtyards and galleries that flanked them.
You’ll get lost, he told us. And they are closed anyway.
We disobeyed, explored the galleries — which were open — and managed to meet Jack in time.
At the Great Wall of China, I nearly wept, so grateful for the luck that had brought me here.
Jack’s voice broke my reverie.
Don’t climb beyond the first guard tower, he warned. If you climb higher than that, you will become exhausted and collapse.
I burst out laughing and made my way up the steep stairs. I climbed past three towers, sweating profusely as the blistering sun beat down on me. For once, I had to admit Jack was right. This was tough.
But I did not collapse.