Jonathan Watts, Asia environment correspondent for The Guardian, spent the weekend at an auction in Beijing attended by well-heeled buyers ready to pay top dollar for spirits and tonics with tiger, rhino horn and pangolin ingredients. Watts watched silently at first, but eventually decided to reveal he was a journalist so he could ask staff about the illegality of the stuff on sale. Here’s what happened:
Up until the moment I revealed I was a journalist, the auctioneer had coasteed through an earlier part of the catalogue, covering cases of spirits (not wine) that contained tiger ingredients.
Once my journalistic identity was known, however, the police arrived and made a show of locking one of the doors. The staff quietly insisted I leave the hall because I was not a buyer. I do not question their right to do so, but I doubt their motives. (I was not the only person watching without a bidders’ card and nobody had cared about my presence before I started asking questions). I whispered back that I wanted to stay a few extra minutes so I could be sure that the bidding for tiger wine would be halted, as the authorities had ordered. Three plain clothes security men then flanked my chair and kept nudging me to leave.
I quietly held my ground, guessing they would be reluctant to make a fuss in such upmarket company. Soon after it was clear that I had no intention of moving, one of the backroom staff went to the front and whispered something to the auctioneer. It may have been mere coincidence, but a few minutes later, just as the sale of the tiger wine was due to begin, the auctioneer announced a postponement. There were audible groans among the audience.
“It’s a real pity,” one man told me as he walked back to his car. “I came here just for the tiger bone wine. It’s really good stuff, but I haven’t been able to buy any for a long time.”