Shanghai | It was going to be a feel-good news story.
Instead, an innocent visit to the gates of a Shanghai high school this week became a lesson in the disturbing lengths China will go to to stop its citizens talking about the coronavirus outbreak.
The Australian Financial Review spent several hours on Monday afternoon outside Shanghai’s Xiang Ming High School speaking to parents and students about classes resuming for the first time in three months.
Their comments were overwhelmingly positive. China’s schools have taken a cautious approach to reopening, with staggered class times and stringent social distancing and health screening measures.
The parents felt their children were safe and commended the authorities for their work and the online classes provided over the last few months. The students themselves were overjoyed at being back in school after three months stuck at home studying online.
The interviews took place on the street, not on school territory.
After an hour or so, one of the security guards stationed outside the school gates noticed us. Before long, a burly man claiming to be a school employee approached wanting to know who we were. He was flanked by a security guard. A police officer hovered in the background.
After showing him our business cards, we were told to leave immediately.
Happy with the comments I had from the interviews, I headed back to the office to write a piece about how China was conducting its school re-opening after the coronavirus outbreak. I thought the story would be of interest to Australian parents trying to manage their children’s education in a difficult time.
Instead, that evening one of the friendly parents interviewed earlier sent a series of panicked messages. She had been contacted by her son’s teacher telling her not to use the quotes or the photos. The line was that all interviews by parents had to be approved by the school. There would be legal action if I did not comply.
But it was the tone of her request that worried me. She was not asking, she was begging. Someone had scared the living daylights out of her.
I started wondering how the school knew I had spoken to her. Our interview was at least an hour before the school’s security staff noticed us. Hundreds of students poured out of the gates to meet other parents during that time.
There was only one explanation: CCTV cameras, prevalent everywhere in China, would have been filming us. Many of the cameras outside China's schools use facial recognition software which would have identified anyone I spoke to. Big Brother was well and truly watching.
I had no choice but to ditch the quotes and rewrite the story. But I learnt something disturbing in the process.
The school’s zealous response is part of a bigger picture.
A similar thing happened last month when intensive care workers at a hospital in Wuhan, where the outbreak started, suddenly pulled out of an interview. They said the hospital had gagged all staff from speaking to the foreign media. They were too scared to even talk off the record.
This is not unusual in China, where the government likes to keep an eye on who the foreign media is speaking to. But controls and authoritarianism have ramped up a notch since the outbreak.
Middle class parents celebrating their child's first day back at school hardly pose the same level of threat to the Communist Party's narrative as Wuhan doctors, Chinese dissidents or Uighur Muslims. But they now appear to be subject to the same level of authoritarian control.
As the international pushback against China's handling of the coronavirus outbreak deepens, Beijing and many Chinese citizens are hyper-sensitive to criticism of how the country has managed the outbreak. Mistrust of foreigners is on the rise.
Journalists in China had been challenged by rising authoritarianism under Xi Jinping’s presidency for years before the outbreak. The country expelled 13 foreign journalists working for US media last month.
But as tensions with the United States, and now Australia, escalate, this will only get worse.
The ability to identify anyone who talks to a journalist on the street with CCTV footage adds a sinister new dimension .