Of course we weren’t expecting a red carpet welcome from the Chinese government.
But we did think it might at least try to honour its pledge to allow foreign journalists to work freely in the run-up to the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games.
Reporter Aidan Hartley and I were in China for Channel 4’s Unreported World to cover the story of everyday human rights abuses in Beijing - such as violent forced evictions, which paradoxically seem to be increasing just as the city prepares to throw open its doors to the watching world.
We’d gone to cover the funeral of a man who’d fought eviction from his home for five years and who had died from a heart attack - his family said it was because of the stress of fighting the eviction.
The police stopped the funeral and prevented us from going inside the widow’s house to talk to her. They called it “maintaining public order”. In fact they wanted to stop the occasion turning into an embarrassing protest.
The English-speaking officer who arrived to deal with us stressed that our J2 journalists’ visas allowed us to report freely - yet we still had to go away. The police turned on our fixer, asking for her details.
She became concerned that she and her family might be harassed, so we returned a few days later - with a new fixer - to see if we could get in. There were no crowds this time, but the police were still surrounding the house. Aidan and I ducked under the police tape and were inside before they realised.
One advantage of being a small crew shooting on a Z1 is that we’re relatively unobtrusive - as far as two tall white westerners in China can be - and can move quickly.
However, our fixer, Dean Peng, was stopped outside. So the widow came out to talk to us instead, but the police dragged Dean away to “check his papers”. It was a tactic the authorities used time and again - prevent the foreign journalists from doing their job by trying to intimidate the Chinese fixer.
We tried to smooth over repeated interference from the authorities during our three-week trip with good humour.
Outside Beijing West railway station a bunch of plainclothes police gave us a hard time for filming general views without permission.
After we’d resolved things, I suggested Aidan pop into the nearby Beijing 2008 official souvenir shop and buy them some badges to try to make friends. The cops couldn’t help but react with smiles and bewildered gratitude. “Wear the badges,” Aidan told them. “Then we’ll know who you are.” They didn’t.
The sequence didn’t make the cut as we had too many serious storylines fighting for space, like the “black jail” we filmed on our last day.
Dare to complain
There are dozens of these illegal prisons in Beijing where they lock up innocent petitioners - ordinary citizens who’ve dared to complain about abuses they’ve suffered.
Reuters journalist Chris Buckley told us about this one, run by provincial government officials and hidden behind an isolated hotel in the city’s far west. Again we went for the fast and light approach - into the compound in a taxi, out on foot and straight round the back. There we found at least a dozen people held behind iron gates, some elderly and disabled.
They told us the guards had beaten them, and that they were kept 20 or 30 people to a room, sometimes for weeks.
For a few minutes, while the staff came to their senses, we got the first TV pictures inside a black jail. Then the boss arrived. We were pushed around, and there was a scuffle as they tried to lock us up. The camera was broken.
The police got there just as things felt as if they might turn nasty. We’d called them. In a novel twist they detained us, holding Aidan and me for six hours and Dean for 16. They tried to get us to sign false confessions admitting to breaking various laws.
Our repeated protests that we had the right to be able to cover any story in China were ignored.
Officers from Beijing’s police headquarters showed no interest in investigating the black jail, even though we were held just metres away from the illegal detainees. They only released us when they thought we had destroyed the tape we’d shot in the prison.
I made it onto my flight home with minutes to spare and sat back to reflect with grim satisfaction on our trip. We’d certainly not seen any red carpet. But more significantly, our experience showed that the Chinese government’s promises about open access for the foreign media haven’t reached all their officials.
Not only that, but we found the police themselves are sometimes complicit in the human rights abuses going on in Beijing ahead of the “harmonious” 2008 Olympics.
Unreported World: China’s Olympic Lie is a Quicksilver Media production. It airs at 7.35pm on Friday 19 October on Channel 4.
Andrew Carter: My tricks of the trade
Things to keep with you in case of arrest by the Chinese police:
A fixer like Dean Peng - fearless, cheerful and driven by the story.
A spare tape. You never know when you might have to make a quick change.
Emergency chewy bar. The police said they’d only give us food when we signed their statements. My secret snack bought us thinking time.
Fully charged mobile batteries. They let us use our phones. I was glad I had plenty of juice.