“Relax wife, the fisheries administration is here!”: triumph, grief and human interest with the fisherfolk of TanmenPosted: June 13, 2012
This year the PRC media have published a succession of detailed stories on the plight of Chinese fisherfolk through the South China Sea disputes.
On February 22, for example, the Guangzhou-based Yangcheng Evening News 羊城晚报 published ‘More than 95% of licenced Chinese fishermen have withdrawn from the Spratlys, afraid of detention by foreign gunboats‘.
There was no joy in 2011 for Spratly fishing boat captain Chen Songhan 陈松汉 of Taishan in Guangdong Province. He said that harassment from foreign gunboats had led to greatly increasing costs, declining fisheries resources, and decreasing benefits. And on May 9 last year, Beihai (Guangxi) fisherman Li Rixi’s 李日喜 fishing boat was siezed by foreign gunboats, causing economic losses of 1.23 million RMB, and he told the Yangcheng Evening News he was still a long way from recovering his strength.
Following the Chinese fishing boats’ escape from Philippines authorities at the start of the Scarborough Shoal standoff in mid-April, Xinhua put out some rather more rousing stories of triumph. There were numerous interviews with the returnees, apparently all from Tanmen town in Qionghai City, Hainan Province, such as this one, for which a version is available in English here under the headline, ‘Chinese fishermen recall clash with Philippine navy‘.
In early May there emerged the tale of more Qionghainese fishermen who had come home to avoid a typhoon, then turned around the very next day and gone straight back to Scarborough Shoal to “participate in the standoff”. That story contained the rather unforgettable line, as one fisherman’s wife recalled hearing her husband saying:
Relax wife, the fisheries administration is here!
This was splashed across the special total-coverage page in the May 4 edition of the Zhengzhou Evening News seen at the top. According to that story, it was originally taken from the Legal System Evening News 法制晚报.
Mid-May saw the return of Xu Detan 许德潭, the skipper of one of the Scarborough protagonist vessels, Qiong-Qionghai 09099, and who had featured prominently in Xinhua’s stories the previous month. This time he was telling CCTV that he’d just brought back a bumper haul of fish, and that it was all thanks to FLEC and the State Oceanic Administration’s China Maritime Surveillance force. According to the English version (here), Xu said:
Our boats are everywhere around the island, and we are afraid of nothing. The Chinese Marine Surveillance ships kept in contact with us around-the-clock.
Actually, Xu sort-of uttered words to that effect, but he didn’t name either of the agencies. Instead, their names were inserted by a CCTV editor as the subtitles in this frame show:
But the most recent Tanmen fisherfolk story paints a much more sobering picture. The story sat among the top headlines on the front pages of the NetEase and Sohu news portals yesterday (June 12) under the headline, ‘Media say many households in Tanmen, Hainan, ruined due to other countries’ abductions of fishermen‘.
This in-depth and at times heartrending story originated with the New Express 新快报, a stablemate of the Yangcheng Evening News (see above), and it was republished in the Chongqing Morning News 重庆晨报 and probably elsewhere.
It starts by listing three examples of Chinese fishermen’s oppression: the death of a Chinese fisherman at the hands of authorities in Palau; the Philippines’ attempted detention of PRC fishing boats at Scarborough Shoal which led to the recent standoff; and South Korea’s the sentencing of skipper Cheng Dawei 程大伟 to 30 years’ jail for stabbing a Coastguard officer to death in an altercation late last year.
CAS South China Sea Institute of Oceanography researcher Zhao Huanting 赵焕庭 is reported as saying that behind the recent outburst of popular sentiment on the South China Sea is
a national psychological gap resulting from the disconnect between the difficulties encountered by Chinese fisherfolk and great-power strength.
But this article is no mere issue-expert-comment job. The journalist actually trekked from Guangzhou to Hainan and on to Zhejiang to interview “Chinese mariners who have been protagonists in these heated maritime incidents”.
In Tanmen they found Zheng Biao 郑标, recently returned from a stint in prison in the Philippines for illegal fishing, who wondered why there were so few fishing boats in the harbour when he got home. He hadn’t heard anything about the Scarborough Shoal standoff, but he told the journalist that if he had known, he would have taken a little dinghy over to avenge his wrongful suffering 一箭之仇. “His expression as he said this,” the reporter writes, “made me think of that medieval hero who fought windmills.”
On May 26, the article continues, a group of 6 “volunteer” boats headed out from Tanmen harbour bound for Scarborough Shoal, and three days later 10 more followed suit. “The government gave an allowance of 10 tons of diesel to each fishing boat that went to Huangyan,” the reporter reveals. But Tanmen fishermen like Zheng Qingyang 郑庆杨 (who is also the village historian) said they would have gone anyway, even if there had been no assistance at all, for they saw Scarborough Shoal as their “ancestral place” 祖宗地. For them, protecting the ancestral place meant protecting their traditions, and even more so, protecting their honour.
According to a “person familiar with the situation” 知情人, the 16 Tanmen fishing boats bound themselves together with rope and blocked the entrance to the Scarborough Shoal lagoon, and it was this that scared the remaining Philippines government vessel into leaving. On June 9 a Tanmen fishing boat captain told the reporter via satellite phone that his and other boats had done the same again to prevent Philippines boats from re-entering the lagoon.
It was on that day that the wives of these fishermen out at Huangyan saw on TV that from June 9 onwards Hainan Province would provide official maritime forecasts for Woody Island 永兴岛 in the Paracels, Huangyan Island, and Fiery Cross Reef 永暑礁 in the Spratlys.
For these women waiting for their men to safely return, this was a piece of good news.
After noting the lack of specific information about Tanmen, despite the recent media influx due to the Scarborough Shoal standoff, the journalist seeks out Zheng Qingyang’s works of local history, which are found to be full of specific information about the town and its folk.
“Tanmen is one of the world’s unique tribes,” Zheng is quoted as having written, “Tanmen fisherfolk are the only group in the world to have continuously exploited the Paracels and Spratlys.” The journalist reads about how there are usually no men in the village, only women and children, how the women have extremely good powers of observation when it comes to the weather, how Tanmen’s old mariners often light-heartedly discuss their detention in foreign jails. But elsewhere 54-year-old Zheng says that nearly all the fishermen that he grew up with are now dead.
When the fishing bans come around, the men start to return and the village becomes lively. But amidst the liveliness there is always a sense of unease mixed in. There are times when some men have not returned, and their families wait for them for months, but eventually find that they were never going to come back.
Zheng Qingyang says most of those who do return are abducted by foreign countries, and it is impossible to know whether they are alive or dead.
The country who abducts them may be Vietnam, it may be the Philippines or Malaysia, or it may also be some tiny country whose name is completely unheard of [read: Palau].
According to Zheng Qingyang’s book, sometimes when families can wait no longer they choose a piece of earth behind their home and erect cenotaphs honouring their lost loved ones. Zheng described a time “when there were cenotaphs all over the village, and just seeing the bodies of their loved ones became the dream of many Tanmen women”. Some wives and mothers even made straw men, took them down to the sea to wash them in the salt water, and buried them in the ground as though they were real bodies.
The reporter then quotes statistics from the Ministry of Agriculture’s South Sea Fisheries Bureau 南海区渔政局 that apparently substantiate what is written in Zheng Qingyang’s book. According to the reporter, the bureau’s “incomplete statistics” show that from 1989 to 2010 there were 380 recorded cases of neighbouring countries attacking, robbing, detaining and killing Chinese fishermen, with more than 750 boats and 11,300 crew affected, among them 25 fishermen who were beaten to death or disappeared, 24 who were injured, and more than 800 who were detained and sentenced. Zheng Qingyang says that in most cases the protagonists were Tanmen fisherfolk, and that numerous households have actually been extinguished as a result.
The remainder of the article details more encounters with Tanmen’s rich fishing culture, including a secret navigational guide passed down that can only be possessed by the oldest fisherman in a family. The reporter meets 61-year-old He Jinmin 何金敏 who has been sent to jail in three different countries — first Indonesia, then the Philippines, then finally in Palau. According to his family, the increasing difficulty of catching fish in the Paracels and Spratlys pushed him to go further afield.
Tanmen’s fishing boats normally carry a number of dinghies with them, which the crews use to catch most of their fish. He’s nephew, He Ziduan 何子端, recounts a harrowing tale of floating for days in a dinghy with 12 others after abandoning the mother ship 母船 when Filipino authorities came to arrest them. They eventually came ashore in Malaysia; those left on the mother ship did 18 months in jail in the Philippines.
Then there is the wife of Lu Yong 卢永, the fisherman killed in Palau earlier this year. For a while she had journalists constantly knocking on the door, and even some officials reassuring her that they would seek answers from the Palau authorities. But, she tells the reporter: “When a Tanmen fisherman dies it’s like poking a hornet’s nest — at first lots of hornets buzz around, but as soon as the sea breeze blows there’s nothing left.”
The article finishes by emphasising the Tanmen fisherfolk’s “spontaneous protection of the ancestral place”. Once things calmed down at Scarborough Shoal, the village’s fishing boats started coming back to port. Qionghai 09029 skipper Lu Quanbing 卢全炳 tells the reporter that he had been fishing 200 nautical miles away in the Spratlys when he heard that his fellow-villagers were in trouble at Scarborough Shoal, and he immediately rushed over, along with his cousin, Li Qiongri 李琼日 on board Qionghai 09080.
“We weren’t sent by the government,” Lu said, “we went voluntarily. If the government gave us nothing at all we’d still go.”
After 19 days spent working with the Chinese authorities to keep Filipino fishing boats from entering the lagoon, Lu headed back to Tanmen. “What he didn’t know,” the reporter concludes, “is that three days earlier another flotilla of six Tanmen fishing boats had already set out for Huangyan Island.”
Concentrating on the stories of China’s fisherfolk is an angle on the South Sea conflict that is full of human interest and colour, so the appearance of these articles, and the media attention on Tanmen more generally, is clearly not just the result of some propaganda directive.
But for many reasons these types of stories are the best domestic propaganda the Party-state could hope for: not only do they put a human face on the government’s claims, they actually reverse the roles of the state/government (guan 官) and society/people Chinese people (min 民), making the latter the protagonists in the international dispute.
After all that intense tragedy and earnest reporting, i’d think i’d better finish with this spoof South China Sea version of a classic scene from the movie Downfall, with China’s angry youth depicted as the hopeless, ranting Hitler, and China’s fishermen as the two long-suffering, blameless, hungry women who appear at the beginning: