No one was more pleased with the establishment of Sansha city than Deng Dazhi of Qionghai city, Hainan province. After 30 years of voyaging around the South China Sea, he knows just how much fishermen rely on the support of the local authority.
Deng, 49, has fished around most of the islands in the area. Each trip lasts more than a month, but to be on the safe side, Deng ensures he carries enough food and water to last at least eight weeks. "There is no clean drinking water on most of the islands, and we can't even find a place to sleep. The only way to survive is to take water, food and tents everywhere we go," Deng said.
Yongxing Island, part of the Xisha Islands, has long been a favored destination for Deng and his crew because government agencies have been running the island for 50 years.
Soldiers constructed two harbors on the island, one for civilian use, which meant that the fishermen could anchor there and visit the local supermarket for essential supplies. "The only place we really feel secure is Yongxing Island, because we know food, water and help can be found there," Deng said.
He said he had often wished that more administrative centers could be established on other isolated islands. Now that wish seems to be becoming a reality.
The State Council upgraded the administrative status of Xisha, Nansha and Zhongsha islands to prefecture level from county level last month, a move designed to improve interisland administration.
That will see Sansha replace the county-level administration office on Yongxing Island as the center for the Xisha, Nansha and Zhongsha islands. It will administer the three island groups and surrounding waters. In total, the city government will have jurisdiction over more than 200 islands, covering 130,000 square kilometers of land and 2 million sq km of ocean.
"The setting up of a new city means a lot to me and my fellow mariners. That will be helpful when emergencies at sea arise. So I am really looking forward to the change," said Deng.
The upgrading of the city's status was also designed to improve the life of lots of fishermen, islanders and scientific researchers. For them, the upgraded institution will provide an improved infrastructure and additional support from central government.
"The establishment of Sansha city is huge blessing for the conservation and development of fishery resources and for scientific research into marine fisheries," said Li Xiangmin, director of Hainan Provincial Fisheries Research Institute.
Li made his first trip to the three island groups in May 1986, when he was deputy director of Qionghai county bureau of fisheries. The hard life the fishermen endured left a deep impression on him.
"The voyages were very long, usually with atrocious weather posing a very high risk to life," he said. "When they were out there on the sea, they could only eat fish and salted vegetables and had no chance of getting fresh vegetables or fruit."
Li said local records showed that Qionghai residents have been fishing the waters around Sansha since 1681, often using the traditional diving method. "With no equipment, the method they used was primitive: Taking a long, deep breath," said Li. He said many fishermen drowned or died from decompression sickness, commonly known as the bends, when they came up to the surface. The situation didn't improve until the introduction of bottled oxygen in the 1990s.
"Nowadays, fishing boats are equipped with positioning devices, walkie-talkies and satellite phones. These things help ensure the fishermen's safety," said Deng.
The Hainan Provincial Fisheries Research Institute started scientific research into fishery resources in the South China Sea in 2008. "The reserves of pelagic fish, those that live close to the surface, are very rich in the South China Sea, but they weren't really developed in the past because of the long voyages involved and poor backup," said Li. "It will be possible to expand the regional fishing industry when the central government provides more research programs and favorable policies."
Li said tropical fishing, the marine products industry and tourism will all benefit from the decision to establish Sansha city.
Real town in waters
At 2.13 sq km and with a population of 2,000, Yongx+ing Island is the biggest in the South China Sea, according to Cai Damao, 50, a farmer who has lived there for 12 years.
The residents of other islands may be envious of those who live on Yongxing, which has had a hospital and post office for several decades. Residents can transfer money at a branch of the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China and basic, daily supplies are available at the island's supermarket.
Cai, who has supplied islanders with vegetables since 2000, is content with life in this isolated spot. The soldiers use diesel generators to produce electricity and there's more than enough to enable the use of electric lighting and cooking equipment and air conditioners began to replace fans once residents realized that there was no need to worry about power shortages.
Islanders and soldiers have been collecting rainwater for years. Alongside the runway at the airport, five containers, each with a capacity of 1,000 cubic meters, were installed to collect rainwater that's used by the residents after purification. "Water is not a problem anymore, compared with 12 years ago," Cai said.
A decade ago, it was common to see people waiting in line to telephone their families on Hainan Island or the mainland. However, few begrudged the long wait to use the telephone because they knew they would eventually get to speak to family members and friends. That has now changed, "We can use mobile phones and don't have to worry about the signal. We can even access third-generation networks," said Cai.
Qiongsha 3, a supply boat from Wenchang city in Hainan province, 330 km from Yongxing, provides a monthly delivery of drinking water, food and other items, weather permitting.
Over the years, the island community has developed into a small town, indistinguishable from any on the mainland, according to Cai. "There is no difference between Yongxing Island and my hometown in Hubei," he said.
Currently, tours by large parties are limited because the island's infrastructure will not support a large influx of visitors, but small groups have managed trips. Ma Xiaodong, a 28-year-old tour guide, recently took three people on a four-day trip to Yongxing Island that cost 5,800 yuan ($913) per person.
"Communication on the island is convenient, with very good cell phone reception," he said. "There is also a supermarket selling items at a relatively low price. A box of instant noodles only cost 4 yuan, the same as in Haikou, the provincial capital."
Things look set to change. A new tourist hostel opened on Yongxing a month ago, boasting better facilities than its predecessor, a three-story building with 18 rooms, but no hot water or air conditioning. Despite its failing, the old hostel charged as much as 800 yuan for a room.
Ma said the Xisha Islands are tranquil, peaceful, unspoiled and beyond compare with the other islands he has visited. The move to establish Sansha has given him great hope for the development of the tourist industry.
Evolution in decades
Cai, a native of Hubei province, was unmarried when he arrived on the island in 2000. He discovered that only three of the 517 registered residents were female. "With more people coming to the island, more girls are arriving and so the young men can find a wife. Sometimes I joke with my wife, who hails from Hainan Island, that if I had arrived here 10 years later, I would probably have married a local girl," he said.
Other things have changed too, with healthcare being just one of the areas of improvement. For many years, Xisha Nansha Zhongsha People's Hospital, founded in 1959, was the only medical center. The harsh conditions on the island meant that staff members were unwilling to stay permanently and so doctors and nurses from top hospitals in Hainan province rotated every six months.
The old two-story building was unable to provide comprehensive treatment because the facilities consisted of just hyperbaric oxygen equipment, an electro-retinography machine, a urine analyzer and a surgical table.
Li Dan, a nurse at Hainan Provincial Nongken Hospital, was waiting for Qiongsha 3 to take her back to Hainan Island after a six-month stint on Yongxing. In addition to her medical work on Yongxing, she also became a sort of accountant, balancing the demand and supply of medicine and when the monthly delivery arrived, she transported the supplies to the hospital by herself.
She also had to develop "sea legs" to cope with the numerous short voyages she and her colleagues undertook to treat patients on other islands. Despite the hardships, she said that she has enjoyed her first stay on Yongxing and is eager to return.
If Li does manage to undertake a second stint on the island, she will find that the facilities have improved. The National Development and Reform Commission provided 18 million yuan in February to build a new 30-bed hospital, which is expected to be operational by the end of the year, providing extended medical care for the residents.
In September 2009, the South China Sea Institute of Oceanology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, founded China's first deepwater marine observatory on Yongxing. Chen Chang, the station's director, is based in Guangzhou but rotates with his colleagues every two months, ensuring that four researchers man the station at all times.
When the station was under construction, a labor shortage meant that 40 researchers, each with a doctorate, had to dig the channels to house electrical wires and water pipes, leading the islanders to nickname them the "doctorate migrant workers".
Their tribulations didn't end with physical labor. In July 2010, the supply boat was delayed for a month as Typhoon Conson hit the area. After 15 days, the food supplies were exhausted and the researchers were reduced to a diet of pumpkins and edible wild herbs.
On the night of July 15, the typhoon almost destroyed the station's front door, which Chen had secured with two large bolts to withstand the wind (which reached speeds of 280 km an hour, according to Chen). The door held, but Chen said the memory of that night is still vivid.
"The island is paradise if you stay for one day, but it's like a prison when you are there for months or years. So it's crucial for us to work with the local authorities to provide better backup," he said, adding that the institute will sign a strategic cooperation agreement with the Sansha city government by the end of the year.
The administration office for Xisha, Nansha and Zhongsha islands was established in 1959 and managed by Guangdong province. In 1988, it was put under the jurisdiction of the newly established Hainan province. The office has 18 functional departments and 20 public institutions, according to reports in the Hainan Daily newspaper.
Zhuang Guotu, director of the Nanyang Research Institute at Xiamen University, said the upgrading of Sansha city will benefit the islanders and safeguard national sovereignty in the South China Sea.
The administration office does not have power to make independent decisions at present, according to Zhuang. Instead, issues are reported to the Hainan provincial government, which then decides how to tackle problems.
"An increasing number of people will come with the city government," said Zhuang. "Then the local authorities will be able to organize tourism and the fishing industry to reflect the big picture."