David Barboza, a New York Times business reporter based in China, stopped by the RC2 corporation’s factory in Dongguan, China to investigate the recent recall of 1.5 million wooden Thomas & Friends toys. He was confronted, accused of trespassing and detained for several hours. Eventually, the police recommended that he write out a confession.
Held hostage in a toy factory? Really?
I shouldn’t have been surprised by the reception. The last time I arrived at a factory under suspicion for selling contaminated goods (toothpaste), they quickly locked the gate and ran. A month earlier, I walked into the headquarters of a company that sold tainted pet food to the United States, and the receptionist insisted the owner was not in. When my translator called the owner, we heard his cellphone ring in the adjoining room. I peeked in and saw the boss scamper out the backdoor.
For American journalists, there’s a tradition of showing up at a crime scene, or visiting a place that has made news. But in China, where press freedoms are weak, such visits can be dangerous.
Last year, a young man working for a Chinese newspaper was beaten to death after he tried to meet the owners of an illegal coal mine. Local officials later insisted he was trying to extort money.
My colleagues at The Times have been detained several times. And one of our Chinese research assistants is now serving a three-year prison term for fraud. He originally had been accused of passing state secrets to The Times, a charge this paper has denied.
Oddly enough, RC2 is an Illinois company. Anyone want to stop by their headquarters and see if you get detained? No, just kidding. We don’t want that on our conscience.