The Chinese policeman was stern. He wanted my video camera but I didn't want to give it to him. We were in Tiananmen Square seconds after demonstrators had been dragged to the ground and hauled off in police vans. I had been taping their departure on my home video camera when the policemen approached.
The incident brought home the stark differences between freedom -- both press and otherwise -- on opposite sides of the Red Curtain. Just as demonstrations in Tiananmen Square were illegal, so was videotaping them.
Consequently, photographers from the free world take pictures from cars as they drive by, and photographers from China don't even bother taking pictures they know will get them in serious trouble. Tourists normally have their cameras confiscated if they dare to capture on film what the Chinese don't want their own people or others in the world to see.
"We're considered enemies of the state," Jeff King, a CNN photographer assigned to the news channel's Beijing Bureau, said when told about the Tiananmen incident.
Restrictions on videotaping without permission, coupled with a general fear among Chinese to talk to reporters from the West, make covering events in China a daunting task.
"You've got to be resourceful," says James Randle, Beijing bureau chief for the Voice of America. "And you have to work with the realization that anything you do might get you thrown out of the country."
That's why he and his wife have an evacuation plan for them and their two children, ready to leave China on a moment's notice if Randle's credentials get revoked.
King and Randle operate under the assumption they are watched constantly, their telephones are bugged and whatever they send into cyberspace gets scrutinized and possibly intercepted. Hard to believe? Journalists from the free world must live in apartment compounds provided by the government, and King tells of the time his wife called him at work to complain about a plumbing problem she couldn't solve. A few hours later a plumber showed up to make the repairs although neither King nor his wife had called him.
At least reporters from CNN, the Voice of America and other western news outlets in China try to report what happens. Chinese journalists, employed for the most part in government-controlled newspapers or television stations, know that certain topics remain off limits. "We would never report a story that casts China in a bad light," said one. "We couldn't."
For instance, coverage of the recent release of documents that supposedly reveal what went on behind the scenes during the 1989 massacre of protesters in Tiananmen Square was reported in Beijing's China Daily under the headline, "U.S. using papers to foment chaos."
Obtaining information from outside China via the Internet also presents problems. Trying to raise the online editions of the New York Times or Washington Post through a government-controlled internet link was impossible (Buffalo.com, on the other hand, was easily reached). The Chinese government controls all Web sites inside the country and filters those unwanted from the outside through an elaborate screening system.
Consequently, some daring Chinese rely on illegal "proxy servers" to obtain unrestricted information. But as the VOA's Randle points out, "they have to keep switching proxies every two weeks or so because the government finds them out."
To a journalist who has been trained and has practiced with a First Amendment mentality, news gathering in China presents a nightmare. Maybe that's why I refused to surrender my video camera to the policeman.
But then again, maybe I was lucky my camera had a view finder that allowed me to play back my harmless video for him to see that I was not an enemy of the state.
LEE COPPOLA is dean of the school of journalism at St. Bonaventure University