Horror on high seas: Deadly tale told at China trial

Mutineers turned on each other, split into regional gangs on fishing vessel far from home

(Photo: Calum MacLeod, USA TODAY)

(Photo: Calum MacLeod, USA TODAY)

SHIDAO, China – Frightened for their lives, four Chinese fishermen caught on a boat gone mad with mutiny dropped a home-made raft in the Pacific 1,000 miles from Japan.

To their horror, the currents swept them back alongside the hull of the Lurongyu 2682 and the waiting mutineers. All four jumped into the sea rather than accept a horrible fate. Three disappeared under the water, never to be seen again, but Song Guochun was pulled back aboard.

On deck, the ringleaders told two men who had yet to kill anyone to tie Song up, weigh him down and sink him in the deep. They did so, ensuring that every man left on board had blood on his hands in a murderous spree over pay in which 22 of 33 sailors died.

The terrible tale retold at a trial this summer for the 11 survivors in the east China port of Weihai stunned people for its barbarity. It also raised questions about the kinds of seamen hired by fishing vessels, the standards of the labor agencies that recruit for them and the grinding poverty that forces many Chinese to work in hard conditions despite years of explosive economic growth.

“I feel lucky I don’t have to go to sea, and nor do most of my classmates and friends,” said Wang Shengli, 30, a shopkeeper who supplies seagoing men with snacks, books and DVDs in Shidao, hometown of the Lurongyu. “There is always danger out there.”

A resident fishes off a bridge in Shidao.(Photo: Calum MacLeod, USA TODAY)

The mutiny is especially heart-breaking for the victims’ families, many of whom were desperate for the income.

Zhang Yuelin told her husband, Wang Yongbo, 49, to turn down the voyage. The trip to the South American coast was much lengthier than the ones he had been going out on after a clash with pirates off West Africa in 2003.

Since that experience he had stuck closer to China until Li Chengquan, a friend for 20 years and the Lurongyu’s captain, asked Wang to be his second mate.

“I told him not to go, it could be dangerous,” said Zhang, 46. “But he told me not to worry. ‘It’s not easy to recruit sailors now, if I quit how could I face my old friend Li?'”

Wang’s sister Li Yinxiong said she told her husband Wu Guozhi, 44, to do as her brother did and sign up for the two-year Chile trip despite her worries about him sailing so far out to sea.

Zhang says her son is angry that she never woke him late on Chinese New Year‘s Day 2011, when his father made a phone call from the boat, the last time she heard her husband’s voice. He sounded tired, Zhang said.

“How could some people be so cruel?” Zhang said.. “My husband is an easygoing man; he never quarrels with anybody.”

“I think the more kind-hearted a person, the more hurt they may get.”


Firecrackers lit for good luck launched the voyage from Shidao port on Dec. 27, 2010, a fishing expedition that was to last two years and sail thousands of miles to fish the squid-rich waters off Chile.

The 33 men who manned the crew on the Lurongyu 2682 came from all over China, including several from the northeast and some from Mongolia. Migrant workers, usually farmers from inland China, take the bulk of vacancies in long-distance fishing and other perilous jobs.

The fishing off Chile began in March. Complaints quickly followed. According to the 56-page court judgment, the following occurred:

Liu Guiduo, 28, leader of what became known as the “northeast gang,” and another crewmember were unhappy over what they considered long hours, difficult work and low pay. They also doubted the Xinfa Aquatic Foodstuff Company would honor its contracts to pay the crew $7,200 a year plus commission.

Backed by several others and armed with knives, the mutineers confronted Captain Li in June and demanded the ship return to China. He agreed. The ship’s cook, Xia Qiyong, became the first to die when he tried to get to his captain. He was stabbed and thrown overboard.

For the next five weeks the Lurongyu 2682 was heading back to China, its communication equipment disabled to prevent contact with the outside world.

But on July 20, west of Hawaii, Liu ordered the murder of six shipmates he suspected of destroying on-board equipment to sabotage their return. Wang Yongbo was among them. He was stabbed to death in his bed by three men, including Liu, and tossed into the sea, according to later confessions.

The next day Wang’s brother-in-law Wu Guozhi was stabbed and forced to jump overboard. Two others were killed the same day.

Three days later, Liu turned on and killed his co-conspirator and other mutineers he perceived as belonging to his collaborator’s “inner Mongolian gang.”

When engineer Wang Yanlong disappeared the following day, apparently after trying to scupper the boat, Song and the three others made their ill-fated attempt to slip away on a raft.

In August, a Japanese coast guard boat came upon the ship, which was having trouble getting underway. The coast guard provided the ship some assistance, and the crew said nothing about the killings. But the Japanese were suspicious about the smallish crew and passed their concerns on to Chinese authorities who dispatched a ship to tow the Lurongyu 2682 back home.


It arrived in Shidao port on Aug. 12, 2011.

Police detained the 11 survivors and their ship on arrival. After on-board coaching from Liu, the defendants claimed to have acted in self-defense, the judgment says. But all eventually confessed. The court convicted them of killing 16 shipmates; the other six victims who jumped overboard are presumed dead.

Liu was among five men sentenced to death. Perhaps the greatest shock was that former captain Li Chengquan was among those given a death sentence. It turned out he joined with the hijackers and was convicted for six homicides. The other sentences ranged from life imprisonment to prison terms of four years for the pair forced to drown Song Guochun.

Family members say all should be executed.

“The penalties are too light. You must pay with your life if you kill someone,” says Wu’s widow Li Yinxiong, 41, using a popular Chinese saying.”Some of them are very evil, very cruel.”

Liu’s defense lawyer Ran Weifang says everyone is a victim. He blamed the Xinfa company for poor management that made the crew doubt they wouldn’t get what was promised in their contracts.

“Nobody could control that kind of situation,” she says. “No one wanted to kill people.

Most families have received compensation from Xinfa for their loss. Wang Yongbo’s wife got $60,000, Wu Guozhi’s $65,000. Some victims’ relatives said the firm pressured them not to speak to the media or they would suffer consequences. Xinfa representatives refused to answer questions.

Vowing to learn lessons from Lurongyu 2682, the government has promised to tighten fishing safety and push firms including Xinfa to train sailors and better handle disputes.

In Shidao port, where labor contractors line many roads, potential workers doubted any changes would help. Some say putting people from different regions together is always a risk. Others say the labor agencies that lure men to work on the boats are making things worse by taking anyone they can find.

“People with no experience are unsuitable to sail to a remote place,’ says Zhang Yuelin. “Those in their 20s can’t imagine the difficulties at sea.”

Gao Xiangyun, who was seeking work at the Jiecheng labor agency, only considers jobs fishing close to China.

“This incident happened overseas, when men are away from home a long time, and earning a low salary,” says Gao, 51. “It’s a tough life, and the environment affects your thinking. Stuck with the same people, conflicts do happen.”

Fishing off a bridge in Shidao harbor, during the annual summer fishing moratorium, Cao Xiangcun, 40, has also sworn off long-distance work because of the dangers posed by both the sea and other people.

“The crew coming from different regions must have influenced this, but people shouldn’t blame us northeasterners, there are some bad people everywhere,” says Cao, from northeast Harbin city.

His father dead, the 16-year-old son of Wu Guoshi quit school to work on a construction site to repay family debts. He works long hours driving an excavator for $327 a month.

“My son and I must work hard, comfort and encourage each other,” says Li Yinxiong, his mother. “Our life must go on.”

Contributing: Sunny Yang

Calum MacLeod, USA TODAY-“Horror on high seas: Deadly tale told at China trial”

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