“Hello, Sansha”: Cheng Gang returns, brandishes Vietnam’s name . . . and liesPosted: August 13, 2012
I knew it was incident season but I went anyway. A mistake i have learned from: from this point onward, until the disputes are resolved or my thesis is finished, i vow never to take a holiday in July, unless the destination is the South China Sea. Ten days after my return, i’ve only just finished properly studying all the recent action. The next few posts will sketch out in basic chronological order, recent developments as seen through the PRC’s major internet news media.
The establishment of Sansha City looms large. According to a keyword study of 15 major Chinese newspapers, it was in the top five most-mentioned domestic politics-related terms in the first 6 months of 2012 — a (suspiciously) remarkable achievement, given that its creation was only announced on June 21. There is no doubt, however, that Sansha has been very heavily covered in China’s state-controlled media since its announcement. The extent to which it has “attracted” this attention or had this attention ordered towards it is, of course, hard to say — the answer is clearly both, but in what proportions?
The flurry of first-hand accounts of visits by reporters began well before the opening ceremony on June 24. Beijing Youth Daily reporter Li Chen 李晨 visited on July 2, filing a story that ran on July 9 under the headline, ‘Hello, Sansha’. (The story was made available in English by the China Daily but the translation has since been taken down. It remains online here.) This was accompanied by the graphic above, with the nine-dashed line superimposed. It began:
Would you be surprised if I told you there was a city with an area equivalent to one quarter of China’s territory?
The graphic and the opening line show that the view of the nine-dashed line as representing China’s territorial waters, far beyond the officially-stated claim to the islands within, continues to be propagated through the official media. The apparent lack of desire to educate the Chinese public on the limits of China’s claims in the South China Sea suggests that the government sees nationalistic public opinion on the issue as more of a weapon than a threat.
Li Chen’s report also ran prominently in the July 15 edition of the Shanxi Evening News, but there were numerous other accounts of visits to Sansha around that time. Notable among them was this ‘Exclusive visit to South Sea frontline Sansha’ from the intrepid Cheng Gang 程刚 of the Huanqiu Shibao, who wrote that he was making his fifth visit to Woody Island/Yongxing 永兴岛. Some of Cheng’s reporting was made into an English-language article for the Global Times, but many of the interesting details have been left out.
Cheng described riding on the government supply boat Qiongsha-3 from its home port of Qinglan 清澜 in Hainan Province’s Wenchang City 文昌市. Normally, Cheng wrote in the Chinese version, this boat is loaded with people far beyond its nominated capacity because so many people want to go to the Paracels. But this time, the recent announcement of Sansha’s upcoming establishment had made the Paracels a sensitive area, and with “utter strictness of examination and controls on those riding the boat to the island”, it departed with an unprecedentedly low 250 passengers, almost all government workers.
The county-level Office of Xisha, Zhongsha and Nansha Affairs was about to be supplanted by Sansha City, and the Qiongsha-3 would be transferred to the new government. It’s importance, he told readers, cannot be overstated:
As a transport vessel directly assigned to the government and dedicated to the tasks of staff transportation and shipping of supplies between Hainan and the Paracels, to use the words of Liu Xuejun, the ship’s political commissar, the whole country only has this one.
In a typical year, as the English version also noted, Qiongsha-3 will visit 24 times, on average twice a month. Ganquan 甘泉 (Robert/Huu Nhat) Island is the only Paracel Island with fresh water, so the boat is nothing less than a lifeline for the people of Yongxing Island, who celebrate “like New Year” every time it arrives.
Cheng Gang then recalled what he heard from workers on the boat. One said that he remembered shipping signage for Sansha City back in 2008, and never understood why it hadn’t been followed through. The explanation that the journalist heard repeatedly was that Vietnam had heard about the plan and “lost the plot” (炸了窝), causing it to be suspended. Following through with the plan this time had been a direct response to Vietnam’s passing of its Maritime Law in June. (As documented here, Sansha was announced just a couple of hours after Vietnam’s action.)
An ‘Old Paracel’ who has worked for many years on Yongxing Island said: “This time Vietnam has moved the rock only to smash its own foot. The Sansha City proposed a few years ago was just a county-level city, this one is going to be a prefectural-level city! You must know, Hainan Province only has two prefectural-level cities, Haikou and Sanya. You can see, this time China is making a real move, it is really taking governing the South China Sea seriously.”
That quote was included in the English version of the story, but this one wasn’t:
Given that the Party Secretaries of Haikou and Sanya are both on the Hainan Provincial Party Standing Committee everyone on the Qiongsha-3 and Yongxing Island is talking about how the Sansha Party Secretary could be a member of the Provincial Party Standing Committee.
(This didn’t come to pass; the newly-appointed Sansha Mayor & Party Secretary, Xiao Jie 肖杰, is not a member of the Hainan Provincial Party Standing Committee. An assignment beneath a standing committee member’s dignity, perhaps?)
Upon arrival at Yongxing the journalist found a new wharf called Xiyu being tested, with a plan to accommodate ships up to 5,000 tons. “In fact,” the article said, “Qiongsha-4, the next Hainan-Yongxing boat, is already being planned with a tonnage of 5,000t.”
On the main thoroughfare of Beijing Jie, Cheng Gang was told that the local agencies, including the Maritime Safety Administration, China Maritime Surveillance branch and Coastguard detachment, are all planning their own sign-swapping ceremonies. He also saw the People’s Hospital being rebuilt, and opposite, a new detention centre under construction, intended to solve the “headache that has afflicted the people of the Paracels for years” — namely, the lack of appropriate places to lock up foreign fishermen caught in the waters of the Paracels.
Although the news of the new detention centre was inserted into the English version, it left out the fact that Yuzheng-306 is the Fisheries Law Enforcement Command’s only Paracels-based ship, leaving it with the responsibility for patrolling 500,000 square kilometres of atoll-speckled ocean. Nonetheless, the team is heroically going about their task:
In the first half of this year, Yuzheng-306 has detained 4 and chased away more than 20 illegal Vietnamese fishing crews. And in the second half of June, this 400-ton vessel was given an emergency dispatch to conduct law enforcement and rights-protection tasks in waters around Huangyan Island.
It is striking that while a number of dramatic, first-person Huanqiu Shibao articles just a couple of months back conspicuously avoided naming Vietnam, referring only to “a certain neighbouring country” (and were lampooned by readers for the same), this article’s Chinese version mentions the country by name no less than 10 times. It would appear that the injunction against naming Vietnam that existed before has been removed.
Cheng Gang also sang the praises of the China People’s Insurance Company for its “great support for more numerous and bolder actions in the South China Sea” through “sharing and controlling the financial risk of maritime action”.
Another interesting difference between the English and Chinese versions is the quotes from “48-year-old Fu Zaichou”. The English didn’t mention that Fu is the director of the Yongxing Village Party Committee, nor did it canvass his claim of having detained and handed over more than 50 Vietnamese infringers with just his fishing boat.
“The moment there is a need for the government to strike foreign boats illegally fishing, [I will] unhesitatingly go to help.” Fu Zaichou said: “This is the most basic motherland consciousness, protecting the country’s sovereignty, there is absolutely no need to think about it. Also, 80% of the fishermen on the island are armed people’s militia 武装民兵…”
However, although Cheng Gang’s article provided lots of unique snippets of information, it turns out that his trip to the Paracels wasn’t nearly as exclusive as he or his editors claimed. A reporter from Hong Kong’s Wen Wei Po, it turns out, was also on board Qiongsha-3 that day.
The Wen Wei Po article, published on July 18, was titled ‘Tourist fever: freighter overloaded by 100%’ and it described the Qiongsha-3‘s “decks and corridors crowded to bursting point” on the 15-hour journey. On July 3, the journalist said, the ship, audited to transport 200 people, carried “more than 400 passengers of all identities and professions” to Yongxing Island.
So much for “utter strictness of examination and controls on those riding the boat to the island” that Cheng Gang claimed was in place. When the masses of China decide they really want to go somewhere, nothing can come between them and their destination — not the rules, not the new prefectural-level city, and certainly not Cheng Gang’s propaganda instructions.