Close encounter with China’s worried steel workers

Al Jazeera’s China team mobbed while reporting on the slow demise of the steel town of Qingbaijiang.

The pollution is getting worse. I still haven’t begun to learn Mandarin. I am increasingly worried about food security and fake goods. Living in China could never be described as boring.

Before moving to the world’s last communist colossus 18 months ago I had assumed China to be a land rich in rules and regulations. I was wrong.

In many ways there is often an absence of law. I reflected on this the other day during an encounter with an angry crowd in the southwestern province of Sichuan, an area famous for its fiery cuisine.

We were reporting on the demise of the steel town of Qingbaijiang. The mill shut down nine months ago with the loss of 16,000 jobs.


Until a few years ago such plants were the poster boys of China’s economy. Their days are numbered now.

They are the source of much of the country’s worsening smog and global demand for steel is shrinking because of over-capacity.

More importantly, perhaps, the government wants to transition the economy from heavy industry on which it has been so reliant. And that makes it a sensitive issue.

So I shouldn’t have been surprised by what happened after we stopped our van outside a factory that was once connected to the vast mill complex.

The cameraman wanted “just one more shot”, in the way cameramen always do. In fact it would be our last shot of the day.

The front gate was open. We could see men and women working in a ramshackle-yard, hemmed in by a maze of twisted, rusted pipes.

It seemed like a picture from another era. The shot was supposed to imply that this factory could be next.

We were about to leave, the engine running, when two security guards positioned themselves in front of the vehicle.


Within seconds they were joined by more than a dozen factory workers, the very ones we’d been filming.

Al Jazeera’s fearless China producer, Ling Pei, is a veteran of such moments. He jumped out of the vehicle and calmly asked them to move, explaining that we were on a public road.

“Traitor,” one in the crowd shouted. “You are here trying to steal state secrets,” snarled one of the guards.

Ironic given we were compiling a report about the collapse of heavy industry.

Ling Pei responded with a made up Chinese proverb. “If you leave your bathroom door open, people are going to look in.”

From an open window above us a woman’s face appeared. “Don’t let them go, they are spies,” she shouted. By now the xenophobia was in full flow.

“Foreigners cannot bully Chinese any more.”

“Don’t let them go. They are hostile to our country.”

“They want to steal things from our factory.”

The police arrived, clearly embarrassed by what confronted them. They were young, polite and admitted they had no experience of dealing with foreigners.

Fair enough, we said, we will be on our way. But that wasn’t going to be possible, one of the officers said sheepishly.

Police from another department that dealt with foreigners would have to come here first. They were based in the city of Chengdu, more than an hour away. Rule of law in action.

By now the crowd had grown, along with their anger. I know from experience that you can’t reason with a mob.

A small man in a black leather jacket made vicious jabs at Ling Pei, grabbing his mobile phone and smashing it to the ground. The two police officers did their best to calm things and to keep the more hostile in the crowd away from us.

Eventually the reinforcements from Chengdu arrived. Our passports and media identity cards were examined and photographed. Phone calls were made. Pleasantries in English exchanged.

We were free to go.

On reflection I wondered what would have happened if a Chinese TV crew suddenly rocked up outside a steel plant in Pennsylvania.

Would the police have responded in the same measured way? Would workers have been as hostile or even cared? 

I had a very different experience when I was in Sichuan with the same team six months ago. We were filming the aftermath of a riot in the small city of Linshui.

A four-wheel drive screeched to a halt in front of us. Police commandoes jumped out pointing their pump action shot guns at us. They took our camera.

It was returned three hours later after all the vision had been wiped from its memory cards. I can’t say if my most recent Sichuan police experience was a one-off. But it was, I suppose, unexpected.

Possibly in a good way.

Source: Al Jazeera

More from Features
Most Read