'Sorry, no comment - we might get invited to tea'

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What happened when we tried getting vox-pops in Beijing

Vox-pop. It's from the Latin, vox populi - "voice of the people". The same question is asked of a range of people, in order to get a variety of answers and opinions on one fixed theme.

Sounds easy, right? Not so.

For journalists, gathering vox-pops about a current event on the winter streets of Beijing is like a hungry lion hunting for its food in infertile grassland. In other words, difficult. Especially if your questions touch upon politics. You need to pick your prey carefully.

Certainly not those who are walking with purpose - they're too busy to stop for a question; nor the street vendors who are selling fruit or rice cakes. They care little about China's foreign policy or politics. Experience has taught us that the old men strolling slowly along the grass verges of the pavements, preferably with a dog alongside, tend to give better answers - at least they don't ignore you.

After a few kind rejections and shaking heads, when you actually manage to ask your questions, the answers are often vague. "Sorry I don't watch TV and I don't read newspapers, so I don't know what you are talking about." "I don't want to comment on political issues, sorry."

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The opinion of the media is low and self-censorship discourages those who want to hear dissenting views

'Invited to tea'

And so the sorrys go on. Why are people in China so reluctant to voice their opinions? We asked that question on weibo, China's version of Twitter, and got some interesting answers:

"I dare not. I'm afraid that I will be invited to tea," one person wrote. He was talking about a common method Chinese police use to warn dissidents or people who don't toe the government line. To be "invited to tea" is to be given a talking to, with vague threats implied.

"We don't speak out because we, ordinary people, are already being 'represented' by our representatives. You should put your questions to those representatives," another wrote, mockingly.

"Even if we speak the truth, you wouldn't broadcast it anyway," said another. The opinion of the media in general is pretty low here - and the self-censorship in much of China's media discourages those who want to hear dissenting views.

"Trouble always comes out from your mouth," someone commented with an old Chinese saying. People have been locked up and punished in the past for expressing their opinions freely in China.

Most Chinese people are well aware of the possible consequences of the words that come out of their mouths. So when they see us approach with a microphone and a camera, we can't really blame them for hesitating.

"Without proper legal protection of the freedom of speech, Chinese people will never dare to speak freely to the media," concluded one weibo commenter.