Sansha resident Zheng Wenru and his wife prepare fish at home on June 29. Photo: Wang Zhefeng/GT
As fishermen ate a collective dinner in front of their houses by the sea on the remote island of Yongxing in the South China Sea, they sang ""How many people only drift blankly? What are they in pursuit of?" For them, the words, from 1990s song Retain the Roots, had a special resonance.
Yongxing Island has long used as a seasonal base for Hainan fishermen who dwell there for several months every year. But now the site, where the local fishermen say they have been making a living for generations, is becoming a more permanent settlement.
In 2012, Sansha became a "prefecture-level city" in Hainan province, administrating the islands and seas of Xisha, Zhongsha and Nansha as part of the central government’s attempts to cement its long-standing sovereignty over the islands, which are disputed by many neighbors, particularly Vietnam. The government of Sansha is located on Yongxing Island, the biggest island in Xisha. At present, the city has a population of about 1,000 people.
Fishing for a better life
Li Qiansan, 55, is a fisherman from the township of Tanmen in Qionghai, Hainan. "Tanmen is a small town, but it has a long tradition of fishing on the high seas," Li told the Global Times. According to China National Geography magazine, the local fishermen have been masters of the islands of Xisha, Nansha and Zhongsha since unspecified "ancient times."
Li’s father, grandfather and great grandfather were all familiar with those islands and Li followed their footsteps to Yongxing Island over 10 years ago. "At that time, the island was overgrown and primitive. But now the roads, buildings, ports have been built and the conditions are much better," Li said, adding that many changes took place after the city was founded.
"When I first came here, I had to bring along a lot of construction materials. I lived in simple and crude wooden sheds, but now the government builds solid houses for us fishermen," Li said, adding that there are 159 registered fishermen living in Yongxing alone, all of whom came to settle down before 2009.
Although it’s far from the mainland, the prospect of government money and urban development means Sansha keeps attracting more new residents. "They see the opportunities in Sansha. So they come." Fu Shaoqiang, another fisherman, said.
Some newcomers had never even worked in fishing before they came for the new opportunities.
"Fishermen have been able to enjoy better rewards for their hard work since the establishment of Sansha brought more people to the island," said a fisherman who came to the island this year. Since 2012, the Hainan commercial authorities has issued scores of individual licenses for fishmongers.
In the fishermen’s community, a range of fish are kept at big flat tubs and sold at more than 100 yuan ($16) per 500 grams, such as "big pearl" prawn, slipper lobsters and spotted crabs.
Since some parts of Xisha are open for tourism, local islanders receive visitors every now and then.
Money to stay
The Sansha government is encouraging fishermen to settle down on Yongxing Island and smaller peripheral isles, and since this year has been paying special subsidies.
Fu Cehai is a young fisherman who first came to Yongxing Island with his parents when he was a child. "We have been informed that as long as we stay more than six months a year in Sansha, we can earn 35 yuan a day. The longer we stay, the better the subsidies. Somebody in the neighbourhood will calculate our days here in this December then grant money," Fu said. The subsidies will be counted and handed to qualified residents at the end of a year.
But many think six months is too long, as some only work on the island and they have to go back to their home on the Hainan Island for their families.
So far there are no schools in Sansha but the fishermen’s families can expect one coming in 2015, which could better guarantee that they stay.
Another thing that frustrates the fishermen folk is the expensive price for electric power. One kilowatt-hour of power is charged at 1.6 yuan, a drop from two yuan as it used to be charged. In contrast, the price is about 0.5 yuan in Beijing.
"At least the power supply here is much more stable now. Power cuts were frequent in the past," Fu said.
Moreover, fishermen often dive without proper equipment, putting them at risk of decompression sickness if they ascend quickly. In the past, fishermen suffering from this had to be sent by helicopter to Hainan for treatment. The Sansha People’s Hospital is equipped with a piece of hyperbaric chamber equipment, which can cure decompression sickness directly.
Militant fishermen
The fishermen’s familiarity with the seas in Sansha has given them another identity as militiamen.
Several of the fishermen said that they felt their presence on the islands had helped stabilize the situation for China. Fu Shiyong is among them.
Since May, Vietnamese and Chinese ships have been clashing at sea after China moved an oil rig into what Hanoi claims are disputed waters. Fu told the Global Times he has taken part in several actions with the maritime patrol teams to chase the Vietnamese out.
"We used to take illegal Vietnamese fishermen into custody but now we normally drive them away," Fu said.
Another fisherman told the Global Times that some Vietnamese were wearing leather shoes when they were caught. "I feel that they were only pretending to be fishermen. How could one go fishing wearing leather shoes?"He said.
Wu Shicun, president of the Hainan-based National Institute for South China Sea Studies, told the Global Times that sometimes the Vietnamese ships have government backing.
"If they deliberately did not pay the fines, keeping them in custody becomes meaningless and expensive. So it is a more reasonable and cheaper choice to just drive them away."
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