Police Keep Watchful Eye in Chengdu, China

The police in Chengdu, China wanted to know why cameraman Bob Caccamise was taking pictures in a public place.
CBS/Steve Hartman
The police in Chengdu, China wanted to know why cameraman Bob Caccamise was taking pictures in a public place.
CBS/Steve Hartman

CHENDU, China - Day 12

At first blush, it's hard to see the communism in communist China.

I've already noticed several Starbucks, a KFC, and even a Hooters. China now has 3 Hooters. They're just like the restaurants in America, except Chinese people actually go there for the food.

To the casual visitor, China can appear to be as devoted to capitalism as Wall Street.

But if you're a Western news crew, sooner or later, you can't help but notice the gaping void of democracy.

For us, that moment came as we were attempting to shoot video in the Chengdu town square. All we wanted was an opening shot for our story.

But before we even set-up our camera, a police golf-cart drove-up and unloaded 3 officers. They wanted to know what we were doing.

In America, if a police officer asked me why I was videotaping in a public place, I could answer the question any number of ways -- from "Just taking some pictures" to "None of your business." The first amendment even allows me to stand there and squawk like a chicken if I so desire. In China, I better have a proper answer. And imitating poultry definitely won't fly.

Read Steve Hartman's Travel Blogs:

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Everybody in the World Has a Story, Round 2

Our translator explained to the police that we were a news crew from America doing a story about tourism. That wasn't exactly true, of course. We were here to pick a person from the phone book and tell his or her story. But that explanation, no matter how honest and innocent, would have almost certainly smelled like a lie. Anyone claiming to be sent to China by an American astronaut for the express purpose of meeting a random stranger just sounds crazy -- even to people who aren't paranoid.

So we kept our explanation straight and simple: tourism.

The police took our passports and examined our visas. They recorded our information and reported their findings back to police headquarters.

Eventually, they told us it was OK to videotape in the town square as long as we were quick about it. We were and we left.

Then, an hour later, the police came by our second location -- a public payphone.

This time we had just finished taping the portion of our story where I select someone to be interviewed. From our van, we could see the police investigating. Somebody had obviously called to report a strange man flipping randomly through the phone book. Fortunately, they didn't see us in the car.

It would have been much harder to convince them we were still doing a tourism piece.

Ironically, in the end, I believe the story we found will be very flattering to China. We'll have more on that in the next blog. Until then, wish me good luck and good camouflaging.

Check back with Couric and Co. for Steve's travel blogs. The rest of Steve's stories are on his "Assignment America" page.

  • Steve Hartman

    Steve Hartman has been a CBS News correspondent since 1998, having served as a part-time correspondent for the previous two years.