DZONGSAR MONASTERY, China — The monks, dressed in crimson robes and wielding blue plastic swords, were rehearsing a dance they would perform the next day in celebration of the Tibetan New Year. Then a uniformed police officer appeared in the temple and said there were a few questions to answer.
So began nearly 17 hours in police custody for me and a French photographer, Gilles Sabrié, a long though not uncommon experience for foreign correspondents in China. It was hardly an ordeal, to be clear; journalists face far worse threats and abuse in China and elsewhere. It was, rather, a bother.
For the Chinese, though, it was a self-inflicted embarrassment. We had traveled high into the mountains of the Tibetan plateau last week to write about holiday traditions in that part of China. By detaining us, and ultimately expelling us from the region, the authorities succeeded in preventing that. So I am writing this instead.
China is a country that exudes confidence in its rising place on the world stage — and yet its officials belie that confidence with their hypersensitivity to what a foreign correspondent might encounter traveling untethered, and thus uncensored.
Journalists in China are, as a result, alternately ignored and followed. They are harassed, detained and even assaulted, according to the latest survey by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China, an organization not recognized by the government.
Conditions have, by all accounts, deteriorated under President Xi Jinping, who envisions a “new era” of Communist Party supremacy after a headlong plunge into capitalism and, in hindsight, comparative openness under his predecessors.
Mr. Xi’s attitude is reverberating through the ranks of officials, who seem to so fear any deviation from the official orthodoxy that they consider it safer to avoid journalists than engage them.
The survey found that half of foreign correspondents encountered obstacles to reporting over the last year. The figures were even higher in sensitive regions: the mostly Muslim area of Xinjiang in the west, for example, or the cities along the tense border with North Korea. They were highest of all in Tibetan areas.
There is probably no issue in China more fraught than Tibet. The country considers it part of its historical empire, but many elsewhere believe it was illegally incorporated in 1951, after decades of de facto independence following the collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1912.
Today, the Tibet Autonomous Region of China is off-limits to journalists without special permission, but foreign correspondents can freely travel to China’s other mostly Tibetan regions, like those in the bordering province of Sichuan. At least, officially they can.
This is where the Dzongsar monastery is. It clings to the top of a narrow ridge overlooking a winding gorge that drains into the Yangtze, the river that marks the border between the two regions. The closest airport, in Kangding, is an 11-hour drive away, along roads that pass through the mountains that rise to the Tibetan plateau. The gorge’s elevation reaches nearly 11,500 feet.
The monastery dates to the eighth century, but its temples were destroyed in 1958 during China’s campaign to impose Communist Party control. Rebuilding began in 1983, and it now has some 200 monks who live and study in six temples.
Losar, the Tibetan New Year, is a festival that, like its Chinese counterpart, unfolds over several days of rituals and family reunions. The monks we encountered were preparing for a ritual that would lure villagers from miles around to climb the steep ascent from the valley; that such rituals have resumed suggested a growing government acceptance of traditional faith.
I had barely caught my breath from the climb when we were escorted to the police station in the closest village, Damaxiang.
The ostensible reason was a requirement to register with the local authorities, as foreign travelers are required to do within 24 hours of arriving in a new location in China (or 72 hours in rural locations, as this surely was). This is a formality typically handled by hotel receptionists, but we had arrived late the night before, at a guesthouse that, while rustically charming, lacked modern amenities.
We could easily have registered when we arrived at the police station, but it soon became clear that our mere presence was the problem.
An officer explained that we had to wait for officials to come from Dege, the county seat, which was a two-hour drive away. Another officer arrived and brusquely told us we could no longer use our phones. It was now detention, though a soft one
We waited first inside, then outside in the station’s sun-drenched courtyard, which had a basketball court where local kids play in the summer. The officers, who were Tibetans, talked about their jobs, their wages and the difficulty of attracting girlfriends and ultimately wives. This is an abiding complaint among young men in a country with a surfeit of them.
I asked one if the village was not, despite our detention, a peaceful place. “Sometimes people lose their yaks,” he replied, “and we help them find them.”
By the end, the officers seemed sympathetic. They even shared their lunch — stir-fried yak meat, among other dishes — served by an officer wearing an apron over his uniform.
The delegation from Dege arrived, not to ask any questions, as we had been told, but to escort us back to Dege. After three hours of circular questions in the police station there — Why had we come? Whom did we know there? — an officer in plain clothes declared that we should have registered first, and that we should have requested permission to come in the first place.
That was not true, but it was the official way of saying we were being expelled. The police would now escort us back to Kangding.
“Kafkaesque” is overused as an adjective to describe authoritarian regimes, but one aspect of the word is apt — the comic absurdity of how power is sometimes wielde.
The driver of the police car that took us back to Kangding wore a Yankees cap, which he turned backward at one point. The officer in the front seat synced his mobile phone to the police radio and sang along, karaoke style, to a popular rock dirge by Da Zhuang, with lyrics rolling up his screen. “Wo men bu yi yang,” the title and refrain go. “We are different.”
We arrived at a hotel in Kangding after 2 a.m., only to spend nearly an hour arguing with a woman who identified herself as Liu Xiaoli, a representative of the Public Security Bureau.
Her hostility was palpable. At one point, she asked suspiciously how she could know for certain that we had been in police custody since 10 the previous morning, as if the police had not just delivered us to the hotel.
We were allowed to check in, effectively freed, though a guard remained in the lobby for the rest of the short night. The next morning, Ms. Liu and three others piled into a sport utility vehicle and drove us to the airport in Chengdu, Sichuan’s capital, where we boarded a flight back to Beijing.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the State Council Information Office did not respond to questions about our detention.
After the correspondents’ club released its report, a spokeswoman for the foreign ministry, Hua Chunying, dismissed the complaints detailed in it, saying that the majority of correspondents operated without trouble in China.
“We hope that what you write and what you capture on your cameras,” she said, “will present a China that is real, multidimensional, and comprehensive.”