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News From The Wire.















Date Posted: 10:34 12/11/2003

Legless in Xuzhou

If you want to be a reporter in China, make sure you can hold your drink

EVEN AFTER arriving in the coal mining city of Xuzhou in the unfashionable northern end of Jiangsu Province, Running Dog was expecting a wholesome, earnest, educational trip which might possibly yield a few interesting pieces of journalism. Of course, like most foreign correspondents, Running Dog even imagined finding in this flagging industrial city our own equivalent of a midnight rendezvous with Deep Throat. Thus, it is true that the worst journalists still dream of ducking bullets in Monrovia, or trading gossip with the Bolivian Minister of Defence, despite the fact that most of us have long been reduced to leavening the occasional press release with a colourful remark from the taxi driver who took us to the pub.

The train journey began optimistically. The carriages clatter, heaving with grinning yokels in their shining nylon shirts. The train carves its way through fields and across canals, and you can catch a glimpse of some labourer tilling or planting or whatever it is that they do out there. This, one presumes, is the Real China of which so many urbanites speak. What they mean, usually, is the clusters of rural slums, with their belching smokestacks and their square brown fields of sludge. You see the occasional little flash of existence, bunched up in a towerblock or a denuded middle school, and you hope you might finally be able to conclude that all the problems you have left behind on your journey, as well as the ones you might be moving towards, are trivial by any sensible reckoning, drowned out in the noise of a million lives.
After several hundred kilometres of farmland, surging past the occasional dried-up winter river while listening to a souped-up jazz muzak rendition of Unchained Melody on the train's PA system, your optimism begins to evaporate. Seeing the trucks filled with gravel on the adjacent track does nothing for your sense of well-being either, and once your fellow passengers start to ask you where you are from, what you are doing on this train and what tips you can give to the budding English-language student, any sense of joy is finally drained from the occasion, and you head for the restaurant carriage in order to drink the rest of the journey away.
And so, five hours later, by the time you begin to close in on your destination, it is difficult to understand what the tannoy is announcing, and you almost get out, an hour early, in a city which sounds a little like the one you have arranged to visit, but which – for all you know – may have consisted of caverns and crevices lined with cow demons and Japanese nerve gas. The station, at least, was little more than a heap of black rubble, and you can be grateful that the inquisitive old woman in the next berth chose to speak out to inform you of the error of your ways.

ANYWAY, Running Dog finally arrived at Xuzhou, feeling guilty about the smell of beer on our breath as our hosts – representatives from both the city and the Jiangsu provincial government – picked us up at the train station and drove us to a hotel. Running Dog was at least grateful for the presence of both MacDonalds and KFC within reasonable proximity of the train station. Say what you like about the evils of globalization and the vulgar cultural homogeneity they might bring to being, but at least there was a passing chance that we might enjoy a super triple bastard burger for breakfast.
The drivers, and the officials, were all waiting at the crack of 8.ooam the following morning, and had even allowed us an extra half a minute to swig down two measures of cheap, sweet coffee from the hotel restaurant on the ground floor. We were then whisked to the headquarters of the Xuzhou Mining Group to speak with one of its well-positioned officials. Running Dog was marched up three flights of stairs and led, dazed, into a sparse, unadorned office with a single varnished desk marked only by a telephone and a seething jam jar filled with green tea. Our interviewee looked impatient. We fumbled with our cheat-sheets for an unseemly period of time in a desperate attempt to find something appropriate to say, at which point it suddenly seemed to dawn on him that we were neither Bob Woodward nor Carl Bernstein. He stood up and said that he was incredibly busy, and that maybe it would be better if we came back at a more convenient time. Within a minute, Running Dog couldn't remember a word he had just said.
The Mining Group was about to choose its new leaders, which meant a new round of Communist Party pieties about serving the people, abiding by the Three Represents, building the socialist market, and making one's superiors as happy as possible with one's performance. Precisely what that involved became clear later on in the day.
Running Dog is no longer sure if it was at this point, or later, when an obsequious little man - bent double under the unfathomable weight and complex strapwork of a variety of photographic equipment – had joined our growing entourage and decided to film everywhere we went, and worse, everything we did. In any case, he had certainly appeared by the time we reached the colliery, and after we had made the 600-metre descent into the hydrocarbon-rich bowels of the Xuzhou earth, he had even gained enough confidence to begin poking his lens into our blackened nostrils. At this stage, squeezed into a rusted train and sent hurtling still further into the recesses of the mine, it no longer seemed to matter. Although a gruff, no-nonsense production manager had by now taken us under his wing, it was difficult to forget the fact that journalism is regarded as the third-most dangerous profession in China. Nor was it any consolation to recall that the most dangerous profession was actually coal-mining. The sudden recollection that a television reporter had been severely beaten by a gang of coal miners during an investigation into an accident in northern China left Running Dog fervently hoping for the presence of the second-most dangerous profession – the police.

About 200 miners, exhausted and layered with coal dust, had come to the end of their shift. The mine boss insisted that they should all applaud as Running Dog walked past. Urged to make a speech, we started to feel uncomfortably like Prince Charles. We then recalled the sensible way the Chinese had dealt with their Royal Family.
Running Dog survived, however, and emerged gingerly back to the surface. The bigger dangers were actually to come.
'WE ALL have to have a drink when we come back from the mine,' said the production manager, a 32-year pit veteran who had somehow managed to work himself up from the coalface to the boardroom without losing any of his easy proletarian charm.
It wasn't entirely unexpected to discover that miners were drinkers. However, after two bottles of the industrial-strength varnish-remover that passed for recreational alcohol in these parts, Running Dog began to wonder if the high level of accidents in China's benighted coal industry was less to do with the aggressive overexploitation of depleting resources, the lack of adequate safety equipment or the ruthless treatment of workers, and more because after so much 60%-proof booze, it becomes difficult to distinguish between the smell of firedamp and the taste of one's own breath.
At lunch, we had, however, started slowly. A dozen neat thimblefulls of the stuff, interspersed with an occasional mouthful of boiled sea turtle or deep-fried dog, led towards the main challenge of the afternoon: the dick-swinging and turkey-cocking of a real working men's drinking game, where a succession of half-pints of this hideous synthetic chemical were routinely quaffed and then refilled. The idea that Running Dog might have come here to fulfil a valuable role as a member of the fourth estate had been quickly, quietly vanquished.
As the drunken staff departed, presumably to return to the mine, where they would play dangerous games of chicken with the complimentary municipal government cigarette lighters, Running Dog was left to waffle like a buffoon at one of the schools run by the mining group. In the twenty-four hour haze that follows, Running Dog briefly recalls another ordeal involving several more bottles of paint stripper, half a ton of sauteed octopus brain, and the boss of another mine who seemed to mouth a stream of ancient Jiangsu Province riddles - punctuated by bursts of wild raucous laughter - all of which were entirely unintelligible.
After finally sobering up some forty-eight hours later, Running Dog could only wonder whether this had all been a deliberate move on the part of our hosts. If we had managed to come out with any tricky questions before the trip, we were hardly in a position to ask them. And even if we asked them, we have no recollection of any of the answers.

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