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A Chinese bookworm or censorship?

By Adrienne Mong, NBC News Producer

CHENGDU, Sichuan Province – It wasn't until moving permanently to Beijing that I realized how much of a "shu daizi" the Chinese might consider me. "Shu daizi" literally means "book idiot," and is the Mandarin-language phrase for bookworm.

When the shippers came to take my belongings from my apartment in London before moving to Beijing, one of the first things they did was count the number of books I own – all 998 of them. When I asked why, they told me it was required by Chinese customs.

I immediately sent an email to our Beijing bureau chief, Eric Baculinao, "When was the last time you heard of any one getting their books impounded by the Chinese?"

Adrienne Mong / Adrienne Mong
Boxes of books sealed with Chinese customs inspection tape.

Not that I thought I had reason to be overly concerned.  Of the China-related books, only a handful – a few Tibet history texts – elicit interest from the authorities.  None advocate Tibetan independence.

Nor do any of the books touch on other sensitive subjects like the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, Taiwan independence, or the Falun Gong, a quasi-religious organization banned in China.

Moreover, the central government had made a noisy show of promising greater press freedoms ahead of the Olympic Games. 

But as my books wound their way across the ocean – literally on a slow boat to China – my skepticism began to grow.

Tightening foreign media access

Since starting my moving process months ago, the Chinese government's openness in the aftermath of the devastating May 12 earthquake has been well documented. In an unusual move, they granted foreign and domestic media the rare liberty to move about freely in the quake zone so the press could report from the scene.   

For the first week, we were all able to jump into jeeps and minivans to scour the countryside for stories. No checkpoints. No local officials to harangue us. No barriers; att least none that couldn't be overcome relatively easily or quickly.

But that liberty was fleeting. Last week, when Meredith Vieira and her team from NBC News' TODAY show tried to visit several sites in the quake zone, they met resistance from local and central officials. In Hanwang, when the team tried to approach the site of a quake-destroyed school, Public Security Bureau (PSB) officers turned them away.

Adrienne Mong / Adrienne Mong
Sichuan authorities require journalists to register for a special pass to travel in the quake zone.

In the instance of Hanwang, the security officers told NBC the school wreckage was a crime scene. An investigation is under way after an estimated 7,000 schools collapsed after the earthquake struck and killed thousands of children. Parents of the victims have demanded an explanation as to why a disproportionate number of the destroyed buildings were schools, accusing local officials of corruption and cutting corners in construction.

Then on Thursday in Dujiangyan, reporters who tried to access another collapsed school were detained and then kicked out of the city.

The tightening of restrictions has come despite guarantees of press freedom from Wang Guoqing, deputy director of the Information Office of the State Council. On Wednesday,  Wang personally delivered those reassurances to me as I was applying for a special press pass to travel around the quake zone in Sichuan provincehttp://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2008-06/11/content_6753666.htm" target="_blank"> 

But while Wang might appear genuinely concerned about freedom of the press and presenting his country in a more progressive light, officials at the nation's customs agency don't appear to share his outlook.

Book censorship or a bookworm?

A few days after my books finally arrived in China, the shipping agent sent an email, "Please be kindly advised there is a book named Tibet which is confiscated by customs when they are inspecting your books within your shipment. As they thought the content of the book break one China's principle."

Apparently, the customs agents went through every single box of books and turned up one which they suspect promotes Tibetan independence.

A day later, the shipping agent wrote me, "The customs is inspecting the book. They will spend some days reading the book."

And then last week, I received another email from the shipping agent, "I just checked with customs broker, the customs hasn't finished checking your book."

All that effort over one book.

Now, I wondered, who is the real "shu daizi" here?