Thursday, June 07, 2007

Ryan Pyle Blog: The Role of the THUG

The Chinese countryside is a vast and expansive place. Roughly 700 million people call the rural regions of China home and with most of the wealth and good jobs existing in the urban areas, a lot of rural people find themselves with a whole lot of nothing to do. So often jobs are created out of nothing, and people often sit around for weeks until something rouses their attention.

Enter the THUG.

A thug is, at least as part of my vocabulary, a Mafia-like term meaning essentially "The Muscle". The body guards, and/or guys who do the dirty work. We've all seen them before in movies like: Goodfella's, The Godfather and my personal favorite, Casino.

Thugs in China often operate within the gray area that exists between the government and private industry. They don't exactly work for the government but they protect the interests of government and private industry, which are essentially the same thing in the remote regions. Thugs in China can intimidate local people to move off their land, keep local people quiet of certain incidents or help run interference when foreign journalists visit to snoop around....among many other things.

A few weeks ago I found myself in a remote region of Shandong province, for those who may not be sure it's the large province that sits just north of Shanghai and south of Beijing. I was working on an assignment that was part of the large food and drug quality controls that exist in China.

When my writing partner and I arrived in a remote village in Shangdong we could tell right away that the thugs had arrived first, and succeeded in intimidating the locals. None of the local villagers would to talk with us. As we moved down the streets attempting to converse, people ran in to their homes and bolted up there front doors. It wasn't the friendly welcome I had been hoping for, and it made getting a decent quote difficult.

After snooping around factories, and talking to the few people who didn't run away from us, the thugs arrived. They were driving a black Honda with tinted black windows. (it's always usually a black VW Santana with tinted windows but it was clear that business was good in this village)

After they harassed our driver they turned to us. As they started hurling questions at us about who we were and what we were doing; we replied with only "Who are you?". And that question seemed too difficult to answer. The man in charge, looking eye to eye with me was wearing black leather lofers, white pants mildly too tight, and a snug white t-shirt that exposed a beer belly. He stood dumb founded. As we produced business cards indicated who we were and what we did for a living this man in white was silenced. He lingered on that he worked for the government but wasn't a government official, he could produce no business card - a true rarity in China. (Even taxi drivers have business cards!)

The lead thug then began with his mobile, a new Motorola Razor, talking to the propaganda department of the local country who's job it was to my life as difficult as possible. As he continued on the phone my writing partner and I decided to hit the road and get out of dodge, so to speak. The locals were tight lipped, the doors were bolted and the thugs were calling in back up. This wasn't going to have a happy ending.

As we drove away from the village we noticed that our black Honda was following us, in fact they were right behind us. As we paced along at 100km/hr our thugs were less than 20m behind us and didn't have the decency to leave at least one car between us, very clandestine. They followed us, for over an hour, until we left the county. And while they were intrusive and essentially ruined our reporting, they did not pose a real physical threat like the baseball bat and hammer carrying thugs in the movies.

I've been done in by thugs in the past, whether it was my assistant/translator getting detained in Kashgar for 24 hours, or getting stopped by 3 cars full of thugs in Sichuan province, and detained for a full day. It happens, sadly, too often. Rarely are they violent or aggressive. Mostly they just are there to deter or distract. Instead of carrying aluminum baseball bats they carry Motorola Razors and European Carryalls for men. They get in the way, make threats and scare the locals from talking to us. It's a brutal moment on any assignment, seeing that black VW Santana (or Honda) arrive and having two or three badly dressed large men get out of the car and walk towards you......here we go, again.


Ryan Pyle
Photographer
China
ryan@ryanpyle.com
www.ryanpyle.com
Skype: ryanpyle

6 comments:

  1. Derrick14:20

    keep up the good work ryan. hope none of the 'unpleasant' meetings get physical in the future...

    stay safe buddy.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Anonymous14:38

    Do these thugs speak to you in English or their local dialect/Mandarin through your translator/driver?

    ReplyDelete
  3. Fantastic post man - and number 1 or 2 of why I'd never be a "journalist" in this country. ;-) Ya got balls.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Comments for:

    1) Anonymous: The thugs usually speak using Mandarin, and they usually speak with my assistant or driver. While I can speak a little Chinese I am not skilled enough to haggle with the thugs.

    2) The Humanaught: I wouldn't say I have balls, or any level of bravery. I am a pretty simple guy. I could never handle working in a war zone or anything like that. I just find the thugs annoying, and it really pisses me off. When you think about the man hours involved in researching a story, traveling to get there and then to have it all come crashing down because of a bunch of thugs who have no idea what the great implications are...........raaaahhhhhaaaa........makes me crazy!

    3) Derrick, will do.

    Ryan Pyle
    Photographer
    China
    ryan@ryanpyle.com
    www.ryanpyle.com
    Skype: ryanpyle

    ReplyDelete
  5. Anonymous11:31

    Yeah you don't really need balls to work in China as a foreign journalist, how many do you hear get killed or hurt every year? 0. On the other hand the Chinese nationals who work for the foreign press do deserve a mention as they can't leave the country, and always receive the blunt of the crap dished out from the thugs or police, as a foreigner you can always act dumb and "no understand!". And how much credit do they get from their hard work? again, 0. As to Huamnaught's post about not working in China as a journalist, maybe you need to stop blaming your lack of balls and just give it a try.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Dear Anonymous,

    I agree, foreign journalists don't really have to worry too much about personal harm in China. I haven't heard of anyone getting roughed up or even threatened.

    I also agree that it is our assistants that take much of the risk in working with us and in many cases the are targets of intimidation and persuasion.

    As for the Huamnaught comment, I have no comment.

    Ryan Pyle
    Photographer
    China
    ryan@ryanpyle.com
    www.ryanpyle.com
    Skype: ryanpyle

    ReplyDelete

Hi,

This is Ryan Pyle. I appreciate you adding a comment to my blog and I hope that this space has offered you something useful and interesting. I look forward to staying in touch and I'm glad you took the time to comment.

Ryan Pyle
ryan@ryanpyle.com
www.ryanpyle.com