It was clear from the outset that this was a place with something to hide.
We had come to southern China to set up a TV shoot, but we were the ones being filmed. A slim Chinese man, in his early 30's, with short-cropped hair, was taking our picture with his cell phone. He was standing about 20 yards from me and our fixer, Lamy Li. It's hard to say what gave it away, but there was no doubt he was an undercover cop. When I turned toward him, he walked briskly in the opposite direction.
Lamy and I had been walking through the grim town of Guiyu attempting, with marginal success, to speak with workers. The skies were low and grey. Plumes of dank smoke rose from salvage workshops and piles of burning waste. Guiyu is a community of 60,000 where most of the people are employed in the mining of precious metals from electronic waste, also known as "'e-waste." E-waste is junked old computers, TV's, cell phones, printers, most of it toxic, and much coming to this shabby corner of China from wealthier environs like America.
What we saw in Guiyu was gut-wrenching. I had read in scientific journals that given all the toxic compounds contained in electronic products, breaking them down is hazardous work. But that was nothing like witnessing it in person. The place was a hell on earth of acrid smoke and noxious smells. The pungent air scorched the back of our throats. On my way to Guiyu, a scientist in Hong Kong had said, "Every part of Guiyu has a different, terrible smell." Now I knew what she meant.
Just before we encountered the undercover cop who took our picture, we had a run-in with one of the owners of the salvage works. He was overseeing gold extraction from circuit boards. His workers dipped the boards into large drums of hydrochloric and nitric acid, using a technique, known as aqua regia, that dates from the Middle Ages. Plumes of orange smoke rose from the drums and doubtlessly seared the lungs of the workers. The whole operation took place on the edge of a river. The acid leeched into the water, which had long since become undrinkable. As if to advertise where he worked, the boss wore a prominent gold medallion that swung from a gold chain around his neck. When he saw the two of us, he started yelling at Lamy. "Get out of here! You're not welcome here! Get out!" We did just that.
This visit was just a reconnaissance mission, to know what we would be filming upon the arrival of our correspondent, Scott Pelley, and the camera crews. I figured there was no point in drawing any more attention to ourselves than I already had simply by being a non-Chinese person walking around in this remote town. So when I saw our picture being taken by the cop with the cell phone, I suggested to Lamy that we leave.
A short distance in front of the car, I noticed a man standing under an umbrella in an alley way. "Isn't that the same dude who was taking our picture yesterday?" I asked Lamy. It was difficult to tell. His face was partially obscured. Not wanting the worker liaison to be discovered, we drove away and out of town. Our driver, a local, was rattled and refused to drive for us again.
Then: There he was again, or so it seemed. The same plainclothes cop was walking up the hotel driveway. I said, "Hey, look! Isn't that him?" Lamy said, "Stop! Now you're scaring me!" But a second look confirmed it. It was the same guy, two days later and a hundred miles away from where we had first seen him. Suddenly, things seemed serious. All the more so for Lamy who lives and works in Hong Kong, under the authoritarian cloud of Chinese rule.
Not knowing what else to do, we proceeded with our original plan. We hopped into a cab and headed across town. The cop jumped into a large black sedan and followed close behind us. He had seen that we had noticed him and dropped any pretense that he wasn't trailing us. Our taxi driver was a young guy whose hair was bleached at the ends and who seemed more excited than scared when we told him that we were being followed. He hit the accelerator, while the sedan fell behind and got stuck in traffic. We managed to make a U-turn and whooped as we saw our pursuers watch helplessly as we sped past in the other direction. A minute later, we stopped congratulating ourselves. There was a black sedan, a different one, right on our tail.
"I've lived in Shantou all my life," our taxi driver proclaimed. "I know the back streets. I'll be able to lose them." We sped around a highway ramp and made a quick turn down a side street. The sedan behind us took the same turn. We cut into an even smaller street and plowed through a crowd of pedestrians. Three more turns in quick succession. We came to a stop in an alley and waited. Several minutes passed. The coast was clear. We made our way out of the neighborhood back onto a main road. Within seconds, a third black sedan was close behind us.
Our taxi driver stopped chattering. Lamy said he was probably scared by the fact that our pursuers had so many vehicles and resources-that is, they couldn't be anyone other than a powerful security force. Lamy was frightened herself. Part of her unease had to do with the fact that we didn't even know exactly who was following us. Were they Guiyu town police or the provincial security services? Could they be agents of some national intelligence directorate? There was even an off-chance that they were local Mafiosi, the hired muscle of e-waste businessmen who wanted to keep outside scrutiny away from their black market operations. And how much did these people know about us and our plans? Had they bugged our hotel room or our phones? Anything seemed possible.
We gave up evasive maneuvers and went to the meeting. In a local restaurant, while we spoke to the scientist and took notes, the corners of our eyes tried to keep track of all the plainclothes security men lounging in the street outside keeping track of us. At the end of the evening, after being trailed back to our hotel, Lamy marched straight up to one of the van that had been following us and motioned for the driver to roll down the window. "Who are you? Why are you following us?" she demanded. Fearlessly. "We're going to call the police if you don't cut it out!" The driver panicked, had not expected this. "I wasn't! It's not true!" he kept saying, and drove off.
Lamy and I talked late into the night. If we were followed night and day, how were we going to be able to film this story, to document what we had seen in Guiyu? The cops could shut us down as soon as our cameramen started shooting. Was it even worthwhile to bring the rest of our team to China? And if we were being constantly surveyed, how could we possibly interview e-waste workers without putting their lives in danger? Was there a way we could avoid being followed?
I called Scott Pelley, who was on a different shoot in northern Canada, and discussed the situation with him at length. It was agonizing. There was a decent chance that he would fly halfway around the world and that we would not emerge with a story. Finally, we decided. Though we agreed that there were no guarantees, we knew we had to give it a try.
A day later, our entire team gathered in Shenzhen. In addition to me and Lamy, our full contingent included correspondent Scott Pelley; our wonderful and efficient associate producer Nicole Young; two exemplary cameramen, David Lom and Brad Simpson (who is also the CBS News Beijing bureau chief); and assistant cameraman Jackie Chen. There were also two non-journalists we'd invited along: Jim Puckett, the founder of a toxic waste watchdog group called the Basel Action Network; and Jamie Choi, a specialist in corporate environmental responsibility with Greenpeace-Beijing. Very early the morning after that, we set off on the 5-hour drive to the wasteland of Guiyu. Since we were now with our camera crews, most of what happened next was deftly captured on videotape. Much of that is in the 60 Minutes story.
We managed to speak with a group of workers in a location far from Guiyu where, thank goodness, our gathering was not discovered. They told us about the conditions of their work. They guessed, judging from the script on the components, that much of the waste came from faraway English-speaking countries like ours. Later, after we had left the workers, our vehicles were stopped by the Guiyu police, and we were brought to City Hall. The mayor prohibited us from filming in his town. His police escorted us to the city limits.
We returned the next day nonetheless and began committing to videotape the atrocious scenes we had come to document.
As a group, we walked away from the recycling area toward the center of town. We were followed by men on motorbikes and in cars who waved taxis away and beckoned us to into their vehicles so we could all return to the mayor's office. "Come with us. You're not safe here," said these men who had just attacked us. In the end, we waited them out. Scott came up with the brilliant and effective line that if they took us back to the mayor's office, we would consider it an arrest and let the Foreign Ministry in Beijing know what had happened. "Oh no, you're not being arrested!" they assured us nervously. Suddenly, not only were we free to leave the town, but the mayor and his men gave us a lift for the two-hour ride to Shantou.
Somehow we had managed to escape with only a few scrapes and bruises. Nicole Young, our AP, suffered the gravest injury: a sizable florid bruise on her hip where she had pressed the tripod that a large man tried to wrest from her. Most important, we got away with the tapes we had shot. We had only been able to film for about 10 or 15 minutes before we were attacked. But the wasteland was so awful, even that was enough.
A day earlier, the workers we had secretly interviewed summed up their experience of the wasteland. They had been peasant farmers, unable to eke a living from the land.
Now they spent their days melting circuit boards, burning their hands, enduring headaches and shortness of breath. They realized the work was hazardous, but felt they had little choice. They were, as Lamy said, utterly vulnerable-both to the toxic work and to the gangs who run this place.
*A fixer is the local representative/host for a foreign news organization. At various times, a fixer functions as logistician, scheduler, helicopter and tugboat booker, researcher, field-producer, reporter, translator and magician. The success or failure of an overseas shoot hinges in large measure on the efforts of the fixer. We were very lucky to have Lamy Li.
Written by Solly Granatstein