“Hello, Sansha”: Cheng Gang returns, brandishes Vietnam’s name . . . and lies

‘Hello, Sansha’ – graphic accompanying Beijing Youth Daily report on a July 2 visit to Woody Island 永兴岛. (Note superimposed nine-dash line.)

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.

The Qiongsha-3 that plies between Hainan and Yongxing (Woody) Island in the Paracels

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Adventure, regret, anger: one Global Times reporter’s epic South China Sea journey

Huanqiu Shibao (Global Times) journalist Cheng Gang pictured in the Diaoyu Islands, 2010

After a three-week tour of the Paracels, Spratlys and Scarborough Shoal, the Huanqiu Shibao‘s special South Sea correspondent Cheng Gang 程刚, an experienced war journalist, filed a lengthy feature story that ran in the paper’s June 1 edition. It was titled, ‘Fisherfolk’s grief: we don’t fire the first shot, countries occupying the islands have fired countless shots‘.

It was really good reading, with loads of interesting detail, so i’ve done a summary translation. The photos are inserted to illustrate the places Cheng is talking about — i’ve attempted to link to the source wherever i have it on file, but they are taken from all over the internet, including Google images, Google maps, Panoramio and Vietnamese social networking sites, so if one belongs to you please don’t hesitate to demand a credit.

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Cheng’s piece starts by describing how May is the best time to be sailing on the South Sea, because the northeast wind has blown out but the southwest monsoon and associated typhoons haven’t yet arrived. Seabirds abound and dolphins follow the boat through the glassy blue waters. “The beauty of each day is far beyond picture scrolls,” Cheng writes, “but as a Chinese person who pays attention to the South China Sea issue, travelling with Chinese law enforcement boats on patrols through the Paracels, Spratlys and Zhongsha [ie. Scarborough Shoal and the Macclesfield Bank], this Huanqiu Shibao reporter could hardly think about the intoxicating views; on the contrary, it was more regret and unease.”

At Fiery Cross Reef 永暑礁, site of the PRC’s biggest Spratly installation [and a UN-sponsored meteorological station] reporter Cheng witnesses “a certain country’s” fishermen blatantly refusing to obey instructions to desist in their fishing activities, until finally a duty vessel was sent out and they resentfully left. “Fiery Cross Reef is Mainland China’s biggest reef fort 礁堡 in the Spratlys, and the place where its garrisons are the strongest. If it’s like this at Fiery Cross Reef, one can imagine how the situation in other areas is even more turbulent.”

Fiery Cross Reef (永暑礁), occupied by PRC

PRC sovereignty marker on Fiery Cross Reef 永暑礁

Fiery Cross Reef 永暑礁, Spratly Islands

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“Relax wife, the fisheries administration is here!”: triumph, grief and human interest with the fisherfolk of Tanmen

Special total-coverage page in the Zhengzhou Evening News 郑州晚报, May 4, 2012. The headlines read: “We need to watch over this place”/Less than a day after returning, Hainan fishermen return to the “standoff”/”Wife, the fisheries administration is here, so relax!”

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:

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“Yuzheng 302’s turn for conscientious bravery”: more props for FLEC’s heroism

Just in case the Yuzheng 310‘s scaring-away of three “warships” from an unnamed country wasn’t enough to convince the Chinese reading public of the heroism of the Fisheries Administration, we now have a juicy follow-up: ‘Guangxi fishing boats surrounded by foreign gunboats, rescued by Fisheries Administration vessel, one-versus-five‘.

Once again it’s the Huanqiu Shibao’sSouth China Sea Special Correspondent who has the exclusive story (and he now has an identity, too — it’s Cheng Gang 程刚, whose neglected Weibo is here.)

Cheng appears to be travelling with the Fisheries Administration, as Zhang Fan did when he “re-planted” the Chinese flag on Scarborough Shoal, and has done some more extended pieces purportedly giving expression to the fisherfolks’ voices. One recent feature piece was framed to be critical of the government’s current position, specifically the idea of China not firing the first shot, being titled, ‘Fisherfolk’s grief: we don’t fire the first shot, countries occupying the islands have fired countless shots‘.

In his new scoop, after briefly recapping the previous incident involving China’s Most Advanced Fisheries Law Enforcement Vessel Yuzheng 310, Cheng Gang describes:

In this latest incident, it was Yuzheng 302‘s turn for conscientious bravery. A Guangxi fishing boat with nine crew on board had been encircled and brought under the control of five gunboats from another country 另一国. It was being towed behind one of the gunboats towards a port in that country. After nine hours of pursuit, and a one-versus-five battle of wits and courage, Yuzheng 302 actually saved the fishing boat.

It was the Fisheries Administration boats’ actions to protect fisherfolk that prevented the two incidents from becoming bigger diplomatic problems, avoiding adding new chaos to the already-tense South Sea situation.

That last line suggests that the recent props for the Fishing Administration’s South Sea forces may be aimed more at the ruling party than the public. Even if the Ministry of Agriculture and FLEC are jumping up and down, and using media like the Huanqiu Shibao to say, “Hey, look what we’re doing in the South China Sea,” they’re more likely saying this to the allocators of funding than the actual reading public at large.

The story appeared in the print edition of the Huanqiu Shibao on June 1, which is behind a paywall, but other newspapers such as the Hanyang Evening News (Wuhan) picked it up on June 2, running it complete with a photo of the heroic ship.

Hanyang Evening News article, accompanied by picture of triumphant Yuzheng 302

All the five major portals have run the story, and though i can’t confirm whether it was in the lead headlines, the fact that they have all generated large comment threads suggests that it was.

It’s the second-most commented story of the week in Sina’s news forum, #1 for the week at Phoenix, and #2 for the week at Tencent (QQ). The top comments on all five threads can be summed up as asking:

  • Where the Chinese Navy was, given that the unnamed other country had sent in naval vessels.
  • Why the offending country wasn’t named.

In a further illustration of why the Fishing Administration’s recent publicity campaign is more likely to be aimed at the party rather than the public, the top comment on the 123,000-strong QQ thread took direct issue with Cheng Gang’s singing the praises of the Fishing Administration boats for preventing “bigger diplomatic problems”. After all, the people, at least the online commenting public, were never going to appreciate that message, that great achievement:

The South Sea is already in chaos, producing a great number of vested interests. This kind of tranquility has already caused great loss for China. Therefore, we should not fear chaos in the South Sea, the fishermen’s bold behaviour is excellent. If there is some chaos added as a result of the courage of fishermen, that’s an entirely good thing for China, looking at the big picture. Great rule comes from great chaos, and without new chaos there will be no new order. Only by butting up against the vested interests can we we start to get some bits of our rights back. I strongly suggest enacting some policies to encourage fishermen to go to the disputed areas and fish, and let the clowns [other countries] perform to their hearts’ content, for if the emperor is to eliminate them, then he must first make them crazy! [25,392 supports]

At Netease 103,000 participants produced the following as their top comments:

Which country is it? How can you not even dare to say its name? Do you think if you don’t say the name the other country will save your face? If they really did take you as a good neighbour, good friend, good comrade, would they send in warships against defenceless fishing boats? Less wishful thinking! [20,611 dings]

I’m laughing to death…lamentable, pitiful, hateful!!! I feel ashamed to be Chinese!!! [14,939]

Your own people fishing in your own waters get chased, and you still have the nerve to take credit [12,431]

No-one seemed to notice Cheng Gang’s specification that the two incidents had been committed by different country. The first comment above clearly assumes the perpetrator to have been Vietnam.

Which country could it be this time? Malaysia?

Neither of the confrontations appear to have been picked up by the foreign press, and nor have any of the English-language Chinese media (e.g. Global Times, China Dailyand the People’s Daily online) have published it. The Foreign Ministry doesn’t seem to have answered any questions on the topic.

South Sea Special Correspondent Cheng Gang himself has talked here on the professionalization of journalism in China. But i can’t help but wonder: being embedded with the the Fisheries Department, is he under some kind of spell — like Western journalists embedded with troops in Iraq? Are these tales even true?