The following is adapted from the author’s M.Phil. dissertation at Oxford University.
I was kept for 3 days and my family had to bring money, 140 million VND [approximately $6,200 USD], to Da Nang to ask some people for help there. We didn’t know what the money was for… They detained three boats and kept us in the same warehouse. They fed us like pigs, just with big chunk of plain rice… How could I go to the toilet? They gave me a bucket. Then I did it myself… We had to bend down. They didn’t let us to look at their faces, otherwise, we might be hit black and blue… Their boats reached 30-40 km/h, so much faster than my boat which was only 7 km/h… We were arrested in the sea. Then we were brought to another boat to the islands. We were blindfolded so as not to see how the islands looked like… 15 people were arrested and kept in a kind of warehouse. Then they let 12 fishermen to go home on their boats and kept the 3 other people and a boat. Because there were so many people that they couldn’t have enough food for them… They asked us to send the money via a bank account and we had no idea who would receive the money.
– Kidnapped Vietnamese fisherman (Interview 2016)
Three newly-discovered official Chinese documents from 2009 and interviews conducted on Ly Son island in 2016 confirm accounts that Chinese uniformed personnel, on Chinese government ships, repeatedly kidnapped Vietnamese fishermen for ransom near the disputed Paracel Islands from 2005 to 2012. The accounts include Chinese officials beating Vietnamese fishermen and stealing their catch and boats. The documents bear the seals of Zhong Sha Fishing Administration, which covers a subset of the Paracel Islands, and cite articles of China’s domestic fishery law. Vietnamese fishermen described Chinese men in uniform who kidnapped them, and a Chinese “embassy” in Da Nang that took ransom payments. A bank account in Hainan is listed for wire transfers. This suggests that the incidents were not standard criminality, but irregular attempts by Chinese officials to enforce Chinese maritime law and IUU (illegal, unregulated, or unreported) fishing regulations, while at the same time making a profit.
Previous media and scholarly articles have almost exclusively focused on cases of Chinese fishing militia ramming Vietnamese fishing vessels and stealing their boat equipment (for example GPS navigational devices, hulls, and fuel) and fish catch. Yet these unpublished Chinese documents and interviews portray what appears to be a Chinese state-sponsored kidnapping network. The kidnappings are intertwined with human rights abuses, including arrests and irregular detentions of Vietnamese fishermen in the Paracels and their subsequent maltreatment in inhumane and degrading conditions. They also include beatings that sometimes cause permanent disabilities, and detentions with little food in small and unbearably hot rooms without toilets or mosquito netting.
In the documents given to the fishermen by their Chinese captors, the name of the prosecuting body—which ostensibly enforces Chinese domestic law in the Paracels—is Zhong Sha Fishery Administration. The Zhong Sha Fishery seal is stamped in red ink on all three of the Chinese documents. The ransom money—which the fishermen must collect themselves—is transferred to a Chinese bank (Bank of China) in Sanya on Hainan island, which is reportedly home to numerous Chinese fishing militia units. The sum of money requested is usually eight times more than the average annual income of a Vietnamese fisherman.
The first document states that the amount of the fine is 70,000 yuan (around $10,429 dollars), which must be paid within 10 days or else the detained fisherman “needs to face other punishments”.
The second document provides information on the location of one such incident. It states that, “on February 21, 2009, at 13:50 p.m. [sic] in China, at this certain latitude [and longitude] 16°33’09″N 112°45’43.86″E, the plaintiff conducted blast fishing in P.R. China-controlled sea. They obtained around 250 kg fish in good quality. This act is despicable and troublesome, and it is a serious violation against “China’s Fishing Law” clause number 8 and the fourth clause of the ‘Temporary Regulation for Foreigners and Foreign Freight, Fishing Businesses in China Sea’”. It also states that the address of the prosecuting body is “China, Hainan Province, Hai-kou City, Tai-hua Road, Number 9”.
In this instance, the family of the apprehended Vietnamese fisherman received a translation of Document 1. A major omission in the translation is that the Chinese Coast Guard or maritime militia arrested the fisherman based on his engaging in blast fishing. While blast fishing is indeed a destructive environmental practice, Chinese officials in this case may have used the environmental issue as a pretense for arrest without having informed the fisherman of the alleged crime, therefore not giving him the opportunity to plead innocent.
The incident occurred in the territorial sea around the Paracels that both China and Vietnam claim, but which China administers. Any future arbitration, according to Greg Poling of AMTI, would likely find that the territorial seas around all the Paracels are traditional fishing grounds for both Chinese and Vietnamese fishermen.
Documents 1 and 2 are both dated February 21, 2009, indicating that the authorities received a full confession on the same day as the alleged violation. Apparently, Chinese officials detained the fishing boat and made the fisherman confess immediately. According to interviews conducted with the fishermen, no translator was made available—despite Document 2 saying that the fisherman has the right to appeal to a high-level court “within 60 days of receiving this document,” or to the “People’s Court” “within 30 days”.
The third document is a cash receipt for the 70,000 yuan fine, dated less than two weeks after Documents 1 and 2. The receipt bears the same seal of the Zhong Sha Fishing Administration as the previous two documents. At the bottom right of the receipt is a stamp and the signature of the person who received the cash.
According to my interviews with fishermen on Ly Son Island, the Vietnamese government tries to keep such incidents quiet by sending local authorities to the houses of fishermen and dissuading them from international legal remedies and news coverage. Officials insist on night burials to discourage public funerals that might attract attention or galvanize protests which might offend China, thereby safeguarding Sino-Vietnamese relations. According to one source, Vietnam’s Coast Guard collects data on incidents at sea but does not publish it. Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Coast Guard did not respond to requests for comment.
When incidents at sea happen, the Vietnamese government mostly deploys pro forma diplomatic protests. Yet its efforts are too little to have much effect. Once detained by Chinese state-sponsored forces, Vietnamese fishermen see little Vietnamese government support, whether in the form of rigorous rescue operations, diplomacy, hostage negotiation, or sufficient financial support to cover ransom demands. Vietnamese fishermen end up with dual grievances, against the Chinese government that abuses them at sea, and the Vietnamese government that fails them at home.
Header photo courtesy of the Flickr stream of Lucas Jans.