“You don’t work out, do you?” inquired one of the officers who had summoned me to my hotel lobby in China’s pre-eminent police state. We had only checked in 10 minutes earlier and, after an exhausting week reporting along Xinjiang’s spectacular high-altitude border with Pakistan, I was desperate for a hot shower and a snooze.
But “Mike” and his partner “Max” – two Uighur police officers tasked with thwarting even the slightest hint of hostile foreign journalism in this ever more repressive region of western China – were insistent.
Could I pop down for a chat?
Over afternoon tea in the lobby of Kashgar’s Radisson Blu, we pondered my spindly, gym-deprived physique and Mike’s love of Flamenco music and his impeccable American English. White armoured personnel carriers trundled past the hotel’s fortified entrance and, finally, we came to the point.
Without the express permission of local authorities, reporting was strictly forbidden in these troubled parts, Mike informed me. Not only did I lack biceps, it seemed, but I lacked that too.
That warning delivered, we ended our meeting with forced smiles and needlessly firm handshakes. “You are being watched,” one passerby later whispered into my ear after observing my bizarre hotel lobby date with Mike and Max. “Every call you make. Every place you go.”
Covering China’s slide back towards one-man rule has been an unnerving and, at times, surreal mission.
Since I touched down here in the summer of 2012 the political climate has soured dramatically with the rise of Xi Jinping, a strongman leader so powerful some call him the “chairman of everything”.
So too has the experience of reporting here, particularly for those of us tasked with documenting the human cost of China’s authoritarian tack.
Kicking off his second term last October with a speech from which foreign “troublemakers” including the Guardian, the New York Times and the BBC were barred, Xi encouraged reporters to roam far and wide across China: “It is better to see once than to hear a hundred times.”
In reality, many correspondents face increasing enmity and intimidation, although conditions remain far freer than during the darkest periods of contemporary Chinese history when even speaking to locals was impossible.
The poisonous atmosphere was obvious in July 2015 when I attempted to visit the Beijing home of Xu Yonghai, an underground preacher and human rights activist, for a Guardian project on the persecution of Christians around the world.
Days earlier, security forces had launched a now notorious “war on law” crackdown on human rights lawyers, rounding up hundreds of attorneys and activists, some of whom have yet to emerge from secret detention and have, supporters claim, been brutally tortured.
Within seconds of arriving outside the pastor’s building, we were intercepted by agents and ordered into a cramped shed equipped with CCTV equipment that was apparently being used to keep tabs on Xu.
A few days later, after Xu had been forced to travel to the Guardian’s bureau to be interviewed, I described the experience in an email to Beijing’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club, which monitors and compiles increasingly bleak annual reports on reporting conditions.
“We were held in a small room by three men – one a uniformed cop, the other two in civilian clothes – with a large stick on the table beside us. It was unpleasant,” I wrote, explaining how we had eventually been freed after I called China’s foreign ministry and asked them to intervene.
“The man in police uniform at one point grinned at me and said: ‘You know as well as I do what is going on here’.”
As the weeks and months went by, and Xi’s crackdown intensified, sucking in academics, novelists, feminists, foreign activists and even booksellers from Hong Kong, it was indeed becoming more and more obvious what was going on – and it was not a pretty sight.
In December 2015 I was among a crowd of foreign journalists and diplomats physically driven from outside a Beijing courthouse by scores of police officers and plainclothes agents set on suppressing reporting of the trial of Pu Zhiqiang, a champion of free speech.
“We hope for change. We must change,” one of Pu’s friends told me just before an Australian colleague was hurled to the ground by an agent whose face was hidden behind a white pollution mask.
Amid the repression there have been moments of laughter and joy.
In May 2016, after sneaking into the back room of a cafe in west Beijing to interview the heavily monitored wives of two incarcerated lawyers, I made the mistake of asking one of them what she most missed about her partner.
“When they take your lover away, what do you think you most miss?” Wang Qiaoling replied, roaring with laughter. (It was to be another year before her husband, Li Heping, would emerge from detention, an emaciated shadow of his former self, but free, at least).
Last August we travelled to Tanmen, a South China Sea fishing community Xi had visited on one of his first presidential visits.
Our plan was to interview locals who had met China’s leader four years earlier, and as we walked into the office of Ding Zhile, the head of Tanmen’s fisherman’s association and one of Xi’s hosts, we seemed to have the perfect guy. A copy of one of Xi’s now numerous books, The Governance of China, occupied pride of place on Ding’s desk. A photograph of Xi standing just metres from where we now stood hung just inside the door.
Ding, however, was in no mood to talk. “The way I see things, the Guardian is not a good newspaper,” he scowled.
Could he spare just five minutes to describe his afternoon with Chairman Xi? Not a chance. “Please put yourself in my shoes,” Ding grumbled, pointing to the door.
Ding’s dislike of the Guardian’s coverage of Xi’s China has, I sense, been shared by Chinese authorities who have complained repeatedly of the “bad atmosphere” my stories have created. In my six years here, state media, from whom Xi has demanded “absolute loyalty”, have called me a reckless gossip fiend, an unscientific barbarian, an arrogant rumour-monger and, just last month, a sharply voiced up-to-no-good attacker.
Those insults pale into insignificance compared with the growing restrictions and threats faced by Chinese journalists, the subject of one of the most dispiriting reports of my time in Beijing.
But they do, I think, shed some light on the dramatic and troubling changes now sweeping the world’s wealthiest and most powerful authoritarian nation and on the Communist party’s deep unease and anger at the outsiders attempting to chronicle them.
When I informed my government handler I had been appointed the Guardian’s Latin America correspondent and would soon be moving to Mexico City, he offered his congratulations. “That’s a … mysterious land,” he said. “Remote and far!”
Alas, when it comes to this unscientific barbarian, I suspect even Mexico may not be quite far enough.