I work for a Chinese NGO. But in that capacity I am frequently asked to contribute analysis and even news stories to US-based publications like The Nation, Huffington Post and Grist, for which I write regularly.

This means that every once in a while I suddenly have to take off my NGO advocacy hat and put on the guise of an investigative journalist.

In the past two years I have noticed some interesting phenomena as a foreigner working in China both as a journalist and an activist. Below are a few observations:

It is hard to find the truth. Many potential sources of information are afraid to talk or provide any insight or information outside of the official party line that is constantly pumped into the media or any other source of public information. Beijing is an efficient dictatorship that has two successful ways of keeping dissenters quiet. The first is though censorship and the second is through extra-legal punishment. While there are ways of getting around the web censors in China (using connection-slowing proxy servers that come with a high monthly fee) most people don’t have the time or perseverance to get beyond the great Chinese firewall. For those that do talk, bad things happen. When I was in China last, a reporter who wrote a story that was critical of the government had thugs break into his house and cut his fingers off the day the report was published. Last week, a blogger who had mentioned he was being followed disappeared and then reappeared later “recovering” in a hospital, although it was not clear from what. This happens so often that Chinese people have adopted a tongue-in-cheek slang word: to disappear is to be “harmonized.”

There is no truth. This is a brick wall that I have run into many times. Often as a journalist, but more critically as an activist. Basic information on simple policies is  just not available or, worse, contradicting. Beijing is a sprawling web of bureaucracies with long and complicated names. For example, when looking for the government body responsible for adopting international standards for measuring greenhouse gases, I was turned away at the Chinese Academy for Environmental Policy at the Center for Climate Policy at the Ministry of Environmental Protection and told that instead I should go to the China Standard Certification Center of the National Institute of Standardization under the Standardization Administration of China which is part of the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine.  A knowledgeable colleague told me that actually I should go to the Department of Climate Change at the National Development and Reform Commission. And there is also the National Energy Saving Center, the Energy Research Institute and many others. Once, a red faced high level member of the EPA, over lunch in Beijing, told me he was so fed up with Chinese bureaucracy he felt like slamming his head against a wall.

US media misses all the good moments. Somehow the mainstream media misses all the good stories in China. For example a non-existent Cairo-inspired “protest” in February was attended almost entirely by foreign correspondents and police (but no protesters). One observer noted: “No one shouted slogans, no one held signs, it was just a group of people standing around photographing each other.” Yet, the place where civil society is stirring – in the environmental NGO community, there has been little coverage.

There are surprising moments of clarity. Once in a while, something happens which counters all of the above statements. For example, last week, I was trying to find information about whether water shortages would impose a barrier to large scale expansion of nuclear power capacity in China. None of my NGO contacts could answer the question. At the bottom of a Google rabbit hole I found some old pages of press releases issued by the Chinese Ministry of Water. They were translated into English and full of ridiculous typos but on each one there was a contact name and phone number for Minister of Water himself. I logged onto Skype and called the number. An eager and cheerful voice picked up after the first ring and answered every question I had quite satisfactorily.

No one seems to be able to predict China’s behavior. After the Soviets broke diplomatic ties with Beijing in 1956, many China experts predicted that Communist China would collapse, but they were wrong. Again, after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, foreign observers predicted that China would break apart like the Soviet Union and that it couldn’t withstand the economic isolation that happened as a result of the Tiananmen incident. Again, this didn’t pan out. In the 90s when China first started hitting 10% annual growth rates, economists swore that it couldn’t last beyond a couple years. But they were wrong. Something propels China forward that no one seems to have put their finger on.

I will let you know if I find it.