ASIA NEWS NETWORK
WE KNOW ASIA BETTER
Publication Date : 31-08-2012
Sunday, August 12, seemed just like every other Sunday.
Lo Chung Cheong went for his weekly run with his buddies along their favourite route at the Mei Foo estate in West Kowloon.
At the end of it, he handed his friends a bag of books and DVDs on running. "I thought they might find it useful," says the avid runner, 60, who takes part in marathons.
The day before, the father of two had arranged his finances, worried that "there could be accidents".
All these done, Lo was set, except for one thing. He had not told his wife of 28 years about something he was about to do. At 12:30pm that Sunday, he met 13 others at the Tsim Sha Tsui Terminal, where they got ready to set off on a similar voyage that, 16 years ago, had killed someone.
Then, his phone rang. It was his wife. She wanted to know when they were to meet for lunch. That was when he told her he wasn't going home, and to help him apply for leave at the design school where he teaches.
How long? "If I'm caught by the Japanese and sent home on a flight, get a week's leave. If not, and we will be returning by boat, 10 days.
"If there is any accident..." his voice trailed off.
In the end, there were no accidents. All 14 - including two journalists and four crew members - arrived home safely by August 22, thinner and sunburnt but jubilant.
They had landed successfully on the Diaoyu islands that China and Japan have quarrelled over for decades - just the third Chinese group to do so in 16 years.
Both East Asian giants lay claim to the islands that the Japanese administer as the Senkaku islands.
What bound the diverse group of eight activists was the shared belief that the islands belong to the Chinese, and a rage that the government was not doing more "to take back what is ours".
Among the motley crew were construction worker Fang Xiaosong from Henan and contractor Ng Shek Yiu from Macau.
From Hong Kong, there were two veteran activists: Yueng Hong, an online radio station deejay, and "Bull" Tsang Kin Shing, an ex-legislator from the radical League of Social Democrats. Since 1996, both have been part of the Action Committee for Defending the Diaoyu Islands, when the body was set up in Hong Kong.
Joining them were construction workers Koo Sze Yiu, 56, and Lo Hom Chau. Wong Fah Man, who runs a garage, and Lo, the design teacher, rounded out the group.
Their shared conviction runs so strongly that Fang, 35, says he is willing to be "sacrificed" for their cause: " I believe war cannot be avoided. I'm willing to be in the firing line, so as to prompt the Chinese government to take steps to claim the islands back."
And indeed, lives have been lost over the Diaoyu islands.
In August 1996, a group of Hong Kong activists ventured onto the islands but the trip ended in tragedy when their leader David Chen drowned after they tried to swim ashore.
Partly spurred by this, legislator Albert Ho formed the committee to raise funds and a boat, Kai Fung, was bought for HK$600,000 (US$77,000). The next year, it set sail for the islands but sank after it was rammed by Japanese coast guard boats.
For seven years, the group set about raising funds again, and in 2005 got a new trawler on the mainland for HK$1.3 million, this time with a steel hull. It was called Kai Fung 2.
It ventured out to the islands annually but never landed, as it was either stopped by the authorities within Hong Kong or repelled by Japanese coast guards.
So how did it succeed this time round?
Some activists and analysts believe that the Hong Kong authorities - with the tacit approval of Beijing - had allowed the vessel to leave local waters.
Reasons ranged from China's need to make a show of its claim amid various territorial spats, to wanting to distract the Chinese people from the Gu Kailai trial.
After an initial tussle with Hong Kong maritime officials who boarded the boat but found the cabin door locked, the boat was allowed to sail into open waters.
For three days and nights, the 14 men lived in close proximity. Their shared mission meant a camaraderie of sorts, but inevitably, conflicts surfaced, such as whether to wreck the boat on the rocks near the islands for the symbolism of having a Chinese vessel "forever" in its waters.
Reveals Tsang, 56: "We had many disagreements on, say, the technicalities of the voyage, on politics, on safety. But most of the time, we ended up on the same page because we were united by the same mission."
Nobody on board was in a bickering mood as the ship approached the islands on August 15.
Five nautical miles off, Japanese coast guard boats began ramming into it.
Recounts Ng, 45: "One hit us on the right side but slid off. Another boat hit us on the left side."
The ship spun 90 degrees. Yeung yelled to crew member Cheung Kam Moon, at the wheel: "Keep going forward!" The experienced sea-hand did, and gently manoeuvred the ship onto rocks 30m from one of the islands, where it ground to a stop.
An emotional silence fell among the activists as they realised they had actually reached their destination.
Ng grabbed a Chinese flag. Yeung took a Taiwanese flag - and fastened a 60-cm-long shark knife to his life-vest belt.
They lowered themselves gingerly into the fast currents and scrambled over the sharp rocks and corals.
Above them, they could see 40 Japanese security people waiting. Yeung pulled out his knife, he says, to prevent them from moving closer and to buy time for the other activists to make their way up.
"We waited so many years for this, I wanted to be sure everyone got the chance to plant their feet on the island."
There was joy; he wept for five minutes after returning to the ship. But it was a tempered euphoria.
Asked how he felt at that point, Lo Chung Cheung falls silent. With tears, he says: "We are just ordinary folks. Why is it us who have to take on this role to declare Chinese sovereignty over Diaoyu?"
Within half an hour, five activists still on the island were arrested.
But two days later, the Japanese authorities, in a move to defuse tensions, deported all of them.
Even so, the landing by the activists set off an avalanche of events. Japanese nationalists, in a tit for tat move, then swam to the islands. This in turn prompted frenzied anti-Japan protests across China, including violent attacks on Japanese restaurants and Japanese-brand cars in Shenzhen.
Meanwhile, the two governments have found themselves having to mend the fractured relationship.
The activists are quick to denounce the violence, but they blame the Chinese government more for not taking firmer action in the first place.
The saga also raises questions among the Chinese people on what it means to be a patriot.
The activists are in the curious position of being hailed as heroes on the mainland and here in Hong Kong - but are also not exactly being beloved by the authorities.
Tsang, for instance, is barred from entering the mainland due to his vocal anti-government and anti-Beijing views.
Yeung had left his birthplace Guangzhou for Hong Kong in 1995 after he was detained for 15 months for taking part in activities opposing the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.
"Actually, if I have the power to wrest the Diaoyu Islands back from the Japanese, I will probably give them to Taiwan," he says. "For many Chinese, it is a matter of national pride. I think countries exist to serve the people, not the other way round, and I am not sure that, if China gets the islands back, it will use them well for the good of the people."
Lo Chung Cheong says that when some of the activists began singing the Chinese anthem on the island, he could barely mouth the words.
Such ambivalence is mirrored by the mainland Chinese people themselves.
Even as anti-Japanese sentiments raged on in the streets, a Chinese netizen posted a question on Weibo, China's social network: "If your child was born on the Diaoyu islands, which nationality would you pick for him or her: Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong or the mainland?"
Around 40 per cent answered Taiwan; with 25 per cent for Hong Kong. Japan came in third - leaving mainland China as the least popular option.
For the activists, it is a case of ai guo bu ai dang - love the country but not the Communist Party, whose rule they are dissatisfied with.
And if driving home that message is all the activists have achieved through having made the journey, it is no small thing either.