HECUO, CHINA — THE sea had just yielded a boatload of shrimp and squid for Zhen Min and its glassy surface rocked him with a slow, deep swell as he sailed homeward past Quemoy Island.Mr. Zhen's boat was silhouetted by the early morning sun, his relatives recall. Its gunnels curved from the stern into a bowsprit that swung skyward like the eaves on a Buddhist temple, offering an alighting place for the gods. From the island came the sound of a thud - then several more - and shells exploded around Zhen's fishing boat and two others. Zhen was killed and three other fishermen were wounded on May 2 when Taiwanese troops defended their claim to Quemoy, just three miles away from his fishing village of Hecuo on China's mainland. Zhen was one of at least 20 mainland fishermen on the Taiwan Strait killed or wounded by Nationalist servicemen during the first seven months of this year, says Chen Kongli, director of the Taiwan Research Institute at Xiamen University. Zhen's case is an extreme example of how thousands of fishermen on both sides of the strait suffer the brunt of relentless conflict between China's Nationalist and Communist governments. Both governments have recently expressed a desire to solve disputes more efficiently than in the past. But deep mistrust has apparently discouraged them from working together to prevent such conflicts. So, fishermen must continue to endure a 42-year ordeal as pawns and victims in China's cold war, making a living under the barrels of hostile guns. "We're still very frightened," says He Kunping, one of 400 fishermen in Hecuo. "It's very hard for our families because when we go out to fish at 2 a.m., they can't feel secure until we come back safely seven hours later," says Mr. He, sitting on a bamboo stool in the doorway of his small mud-and-brick home near his beached boat. Taiwan's Defense Ministry denied that troops on Quemoy fired at a mainland vessel on May 2.
Less publicity Mainland offices for Taiwanese affairs, foreign affairs, and the People's Armed Police in the nearby port of Xiamen declined to discuss the encounter. Although China's media used to describe the hostile actions of Nationalist forces at great length, it has only reported a few cases in the past several months. A source connected to the mainland's military says Beijing is reluctant to antagonize Taipei and reverse recent successes in its campaign to lure the Nationalists into official contacts and eventual capitulation. Beijing has otherwise exploited violent and illegal exchanges between mainland and Taiwanese fishermen for its effort to coax Taipei to the negotiating table. When the Taiwan Navy detained 18 mainland fishermen involved in a dispute with their Taiwan compatriots in July, Beijing insisted on dispatching two journalists and two Red Cross officials to Taipei. The visits were the first of their kind since Nationalist forces retreated to Taiwan in 1949. In another facet of its strategy, Beijing dotes on fishermen from Taiwan, as it does on business executives and other groups in Taiwanese society who could talk in its favor to Taipei. The mainland has opened 19 berths, four harbors, and two Red Cross centers for Taiwanese fishing vessels. From 1985 to 1989, more than 64,000 fishermen from Taiwan docked in Fujian province, the official newspaper China Daily repo rted this month. The Red Cross in Fujian has rescued 23 Taiwanese fishermen in six incidents since 1985 and sent them home with farewell banquets, the newspaper reported. Shanghai has rolled out a permanent red carpet, opening a "high quality" hotel on Changxing Island with a ballroom for the fishermen, according to the New China News Agency.
Taiwan's tougher image In contrast, Taiwan usually approaches mainland fishermen - or what it calls "communist fishing vessels heavily armed. Taiwanese soldiers and warships are ordered to warn intruding mainland vessels before seizing them or "driving them away," the Defense Ministry says. Villagers in Hecuo say the Nationalists did not issue a warning before firing at Zhen's boat. In the view of Nationalists, mainlanders afloat often bring trouble. Pirates from the mainland frequently raid fishing boats from Taiwan, stealing watches, money, fish, and anything else of value before fleeing from Taiwanese warships into the mainland's territorial waters. Many fishermen in recent years have been killed or wounded in the attacks, according to Taiwan. Moreover, Taipei in recent years has had to repatriate thousands of Chinese spirited into Taiwan by a mainland racket in illegal immigration. Smuggling is also a growing problem that Beijing, despite its public assertions, has failed to adequately combat, says Osmond Chia at the Government Information Office on Taiwan. Both governments have expressed support for joint efforts to trim illicit trade. Taipei proposed in the spring that the two governments form an unofficial panel to arbitrate fishery disputes. But the body would only solve disagreements, not try to forestall them. The enduring tension shows that China's feuding political parties are more concerned with their rivalry than with the livelihood of common people on the strait, say Hecuo villagers. "High officials never come down to see common people on the sea!" says He's wife as she cleans a red grouper with some flicks of a cleaver and tosses the fish into a bucket.