Prying eyes not welcome in China

TV reporter Dominic Waghorn was greeted with a less than warm welcome when he and his producer investigated the Beijing fur industry

CHINA’S ECONOMY is booming and the country is opening up, as we are constantly reminded in the media. So you might think working there as a journalist should be getting easier. Far from it.

China’s growing wealth is spawning powerful alliances between big business and local government, and they are determined to protect their interests from prying eyes.

Sky News experienced the sharp end of that, investigating the country’s fur industry. The world is outsourcing more and more of its fur production to China. Low labour costs, and hardly any animal welfare legislation, make an irresistible combination.

China’s now helping drive the fur revival on Britain’s high streets. If you bought fur-trimmed boots or coats this Christmas the chances are the fur came from China.

We neared Shangcun fur market, just three hours outside Beijing, at dawn. The roads were thick with tractors laden with racoons, foxes and rabbits crammed in cages. This one market supplies 60 per cent of the country’s entire fur output.

Earlier this year a Swiss animal welfare organisation secretly filmed footage of appalling conditions at the market and the farms that supply it.

On the internet it circulated grisly pictures of racoon dogs and foxes being skinned alive.

It caused an international outcry, prompting Chinese authorities to announce a clean-up.

It has not made a huge difference. Instead of being clubbed to death, the animals are electrocuted with home-made devices wired to tractor batteries. They struggle to escape as one prong goes in their mouth the other in their anus, then lie twitching and whimpering on the ground.

Often the voltage isn’t strong enough. There is no effort to check they are dead before they are strung up on the tractor and skinned. In the back of the vehicle their skinless bodies pile up, some clearly still alive, their hearts still beating.

We would have liked to investigate more, but the market’s management was onto us. A group of large, menacing men were watching us intently. Being a journalist in China requires luck and good judgment.

Perhaps we had left it a little late before leaving.

As we drove off, a black sedan with tinted windows tailed us. It is best not to stop unless you have to. After being overtaken and nearly driven off the road several times, we had no choice.

One of the thugs we had seen at the market told our driver we had knocked down an old lady. We hadn’t of course – it is the kind of thing you notice.

It was just a clever way of making us stay put while they worked out what to do with us.

We never learned who the man was, nor his more sinister companions – shadowy figures in dark suits who swarmed round the car and refused to show their ID cards. They would stay in the background all day – a constant reminder that in this part of China the fur industry runs things.

Eventually the police arrived. We had been detained, the start of a 10-hour process that would veer from the utterly surreal to the deeply sinister.

They said they would take us to a hotel. Normally that means you are going to the police station; in this case they meant it. A four star joint in the county capital, inaptly named the Hurray Hotel. We were sat in its lobby and given tea but it was made clear we could not leave.

We sat and watched more men in dark suits arrive through the morning. As well as the 20 or so officials, thugs and police who had arrived with us, dozens more arrived through the morning. They all knew each other and had all come to look at us.

And, it turned out, have lunch with us. A banquet had been laid on and we were invited. Like trophies, we felt, so we declined.

After lunch, we were ordered to a hotel room.

Being detained in China is always unnerving but usually there is a pattern. You are lectured, forced to see the error of your ways and made to write a self criticism, a throwback to the dark days of Mao. It is long and laborious, how long depends on how much you are prepared to go along with the ridiculous charade.

My producer and I did as we were told. But they wanted more, the one videotape we had handed over was not enough. They became menacing, screaming at my producer, calling her a liar. She was on her own, they said, and no one could help her.

We were very aware the last time a foreign team of journalists had been picked up in the same province they had been roughed up by police and made to undergo a strip search. As daylight failed, more people were coming and going. Some of them police, some officials, others thugs from the fur market.

Like most of provincial China, this place is run by a gangster alliance, with local government, police and big business all in it together, something like 1920s Chicago. If we had filmed footage damaging to the town’s big industry they wanted it.

Most worrying, our Chinese driver became a lightning rod for the police, who were increasingly frustrated with us. It must have felt like returning to the terror of the Cultural Revolution as they took him to a separate room and condemned him as a traitor in long loud interrogation sessions that stopped just short of beating him up.

The British and Australian Embassies were trying to help us all day. In the end it must have made a difference. Risking a diplomatic incident must have worried our captors, or perhaps they were beginning to believe we had no more tapes. At six o’clock, 10 hours after being detained, we were dispensed Chinese justice. They called it a “judgment”, a document drawn up by police in the hotel room next door demanding 1,000 Chinese renmimbi.

Life here is never predictable. It is hard to believe, but the head of police also wanted our photograph – not a mugshot, but a souvenir snap. We were keen to leave so we stood either side of the man who had kept us against our will for most of the day, terrorised our driver and taken our money.

Perhaps it was relief, perhaps it was knowing we still had the tape they wanted, but we even managed a smile.

Dominic Waghorn is Beijing correspondent for Sky News

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