Column: A Chinese strategy: manipulating the record

Published on April 21, 2015.

ONE OF the leading scholars on the geopolitics of competing South China Sea claims is the French geographer Francois-Xavier Bonnet, a researcher with the French Institute for Research on Contemporary Southeast Asia or Irasec. The Friday before Holy Week, he read a provocative paper at the Southeast Asia Sea Conference, held at the Ateneo Law School in Makati City; I was not able to attend the forum, but he was kind enough to send me a copy of his paper.

It is a short but potent work of research, calling into question the “grand narrative” of the “archaeological campaigns” launched by Beijing in the 1970s. “Among the artifacts these expeditions found [in the Paracel islands] were porcelains from different periods, the remains of temples and several sovereignty markers,” Bonnet writes. “These markers were dated 1902, 1912 and 1921.” The campaigns served as the basis for extending the history of China’s “inspection tours” of the area, and thus of its rights to the Paracels, to 1902.

And then it gets really interesting. Allow me to quote from Bonnet at length:

“There is a simple reason why no scholar has been able to unearth any historical records of the 1902 expedition: it never happened. Instead evidence of a 1902 voyage was concocted at a much later date: 1937.

“In June 1937, the chief of Chinese military region no. 9, Huang Qiang, was sent to the Paracels with two missions: Firstly to check reports that the Japanese were invading the islands and secondly to reassert Chinese sovereignty over them. According to records of his mission dated July 31, 1937, he left Guangdong on June 19 and arrived in the Paracels on June 23. The same day, he visited four islands of the Paracels in the Amphitrite Group (Woody, Rocky, Ling Zhou and Bei island). The following day, June 24, he left for Hainan.

“This short and confidential mission has been recounted by the Chinese historians Han Zenhua, Lin Jin Zhi and Hu Feng Bin in their seminal work ‘Compilation of Historical Documents on our Islands of the South Sea’ published in 1988. However, if they published the report of July 31, 1937, they forgot, consciously or not, to publish the annex of this report. Fortunately, the confidential annex of this report had been published in 1987 by the Committee of Place Names of Guangdong Province in a book titled ‘Compilations of References on the Names of All our Islands of Nan Hai.’ This annex gives the details of the actions of Huang Qiang in the Paracels.

“In this annex, Qiang explained that, as planned, his boat was loaded with 30 sovereignty markers. Among them, four dated from the Qing dynasty, the others from 1912 (the first anniversary of the Republic of China) and 1921. He carried no markers dated 1937, however, because the mission was confidential. His team found the four markers dating from the Qing dynasty, dated 1902, in the city of Guangdong. According to the annex of his report, his team buried the markers, noting their geographical coordinates, on the four islands. On Bei Dao (North Island), they buried two markers from 1902 and four from 1912. On the island of Ling Zhou, the team buried one marker from 1902, one from 1912 and one from 1921. On Lin Dao (Woody Island), two markers from 1921 were buried. Finally, on Shi Dao (Rocky Island), they deposited a single marker, dated 1912.

“In short, the 1937 expedition placed a total of 12 markers on the islands, including three bearing the date 1902. They were forgotten from 1937 to 1979 but then ‘discovered’ between 1974 and 1979 by archaeologists and PLA troops. This is almost certainly the explanation for a mysterious sentence in Samuels’ book when he wrote that these tablets of 1902 were thought to have been lost during World War II.”

The 1937 expedition set sail five years after China discovered that the French had claimed part of the Paracels, and four years after the French sought to expand their foothold in Asia by annexing nine Spratly islands. In Bonnet’s much-discussed 2012 paper, “Geopolitics of Scarborough Shoal,” he draws a picture of Chinese befuddlement when news about the Spratly annexation circulated.

“These two claims of the French government confused the minds … not only of the Chinese public and the media, but also the official authorities like the military and the politicians in Guangdong Province and Beijing. In fact, the Chinese believed that the Spratly Islands and Paracel Islands or Xisha were exactly the same group, but that the French had just changed the name as a trick to confuse the Chinese government. To ascertain the position of the Spratly Islands, the Chinese Consul in Manila, Mr. Kwong, went, on July 26, 1933, to the US Coast and Geodetic Survey and discovered, with surprise, that the Spratly Islands and the Paracel Islands were different and far apart.”

The practice of what Bonnet calls “patriotic archaeology” was mirrored by Taiwanese expeditions to the Spratlys; sovereignty markers were placed in Itu Aba and perhaps two other islands (there is some dispute in the records) in 1956 (the same year Filipino Thomas Cloma claimed the Spratlys)—but “backdated” to 1946.

Which makes Bonnet’s conclusion unassailable: “In all, it suggests that ‘patriotic archaeology’ is deeply flawed and that experts should be wary before relying on it to pass judgment on the territorial disputes.”

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