There is one golden rule for television journalists in China. Don’t get caught. If you are stopped by police, they will take your tapes. You lose your story, and they win.
Our story was about by far the most dangerous job in China – mining, an industry which claims upwards of 6,000 lives a year.
Even the Chinese government blames corruption for allowing colliery owners to flout safety regulations. But that doesn’t mean they want all this exposed on western television.
So in four weeks working undercover, our priority was always to stick to that golden rule.
So we checked into hotels late at night – too late for reception staff to alert the Public Security Bureau of our presence. We disguised the number plates on our van and we spent a great deal of time hiding in the back of mini-cabs.
But most of all we relied on the bravery of a handful of mining families – a bravery fired by desperation and anger.
Despite the rich coal seams beneath the mining town of Datong in Shanxi province, its people are poor and the place is cloaked by thick clouds of pollution and dust.
We came first in early November 2006 to meet the relatives of miners crippled in an underground accident. They took us to see their husbands, fathers and brothers who lay, pale and broken in a cold and dingy makeshift hospital.
In the half hour it was judged safe to stay, they told us of appalling safety standards at the mine and of the mine owners’ refusal to pay compensation.
Coal is king in China and the mine owner, Mr Chen, is a rich man. He boasted of his connections to powerful local Communist Party officials. This made him, he warned the relatives, untouchable.
We set out to capture this on tape. No simple matter. But cameras these days are easily hidden and eventually we hit on a plan to film, covertly, the relatives meeting Mr Chen in his office.
What happened next was astonishing. To get rid of these troublesome people Mr Chen chose to use a large iron bar, which he wielded to devastating effect. The pictures of cracked skulls and bloodied clothes retrieved from the secret camera were proof. The relatives called the police. They didn’t turn up. Perhaps Mr Chen had friends there, too.
But we needed to speak to him and tracked him down to a local hotel. We checked and doubled checked to see if he had security. He appeared to be alone.
Our encounter was a strained affair. Each question had to be translated. Mr Chen fizzed with restrained fury and uttered only three words: ‘It’s not possible.”
There were two postscripts to our story. Shortly after our meeting, Mr Chen agreed to pay the miners compensation – not much, but something.
Then, something which made us wonder how lucky had we been. Back in Datong, a Chinese journalist investigating mine safety was set upon and beaten to death by thugs. The man responsible: the owner of a local colliery. In June, he was jailed for life.