Taiwanese fishermen tangled in China net Industry threatened by political tensions

March 11, 1996|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KEELUNG, Taiwan -- As he prepared his nets for the next day's work, Lin Che-ch'iu shook his head at the thought that China was conducting missile tests in nearby waters.

"How can it not affect my livelihood?" he said with disgust. "Those waters where the missiles are landing are where us small fishermen often go to fish. Now we have to go elsewhere."

Mr. Lin and many other fishermen have been forced to give up temporarily a prime fishing area. Not able to sail to distant waters like the big trawlers, the small-scale fishermen are having to look for an area free of missiles and competitors.

Already, the Taiwan Fishermen's Association reports that fishermen are dipping into stocks of frozen fish to meet market demand. In the southern port of Kaohsiung, industry experts estimate that fishermen will lose $1.1 million this week because of the missile tests and probably at least that amount because of air and naval exercises due to start tomorrow and run through March 20.

China and Taiwan were for a time each other's best economic partner, with Taiwan investing money and expertise and China providing cheap labor. But this partnership is at risk for reasons not everyone understands.

"It seemed like we were cooperating so well for a time," Mr. Lin said. "Now things are so messed up I wonder about the future."

The fishing industry is an example of the economic links being threatened by the political tensions between China and Taiwan. Taiwanese fishermen sidestep the island's acute shortage of skilled fishermen by hiring contract laborers from the mainland to work and live on fishing boats. The mainlanders never set foot on Taiwan but are a vital part of the industry.

Mr. Lin's boat usually has a crew of three Chinese and three Taiwanese, including himself. On each voyage, he sails first to a floating hotel a few miles out to sea to pick up his mainland sailors, fishes four to five days, then returns the mainlanders to the hotel and heads back to port.

"They're mad, too," Mr. Lin said of his crew. "This is affecting their livelihood, too, because they get paid according to the catch."

On average, the mainlanders earn about $280 a month, a respectable salary by Chinese standards. Mr. Lin earns many times that amount but must keep up his 25-foot boat and other costs of running a small business.

The test area near Keelung is east of the port, so with most freighters heading north to Japan and South Korea, traffic hasn't been diverted at all, said C. C. Wei, deputy general manager of the Yang Ming Line, Taiwan's third-largest shipping company.

On the south end of Taiwan, some ships sailing to Kaohsiung, the world's third-largest container port, have been rerouted because the main route to Hong Kong intersects the southern test zone.

Despite the dangers, rates for shipping insurance have been unaffected, Mr. Wei said.

"The tests are only lasting a week, and rates are fixed far in advance." Mr. Wei said. "But, of course, if this went on longer "

The new round of military exercises, announced Saturday, threaten to do just that. They are to take place in a large area of the Taiwan Strait, which separates China from Taiwan. Most shipping will remain unaffected, but the exercises are likely to keep tensions high for another week, helping to erode confidence in Taiwan's future.

For the time being, though, most Taiwanese seem able to put the missiles, planes and ships out of their minds.

In the fishing port of Pa Tuo Tze, a group of fishermen huddled over a popular gambling game that involves disposable playing chits and vast quantities of alcohol.

"It's a holiday," bellowed one fishermen. "Look, it's March, right? We hardly go out in March anyway because the weather's foul, right? So now we won't go out for a week. To hell with the Communists. We're celebrating."

"You know what I am?" he said, suddenly switching to English. "I am happy."

And with that he chucked his empty bottle of spirits over his shoulder, ignored the crash and got on with the game.

Pub Date: 3/11/96

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