Chinese Piracy: A Crime of Desperation

Chinese Piracy: A Crime of Desperation
Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG
Why you need to know

What we know -- and what we don't -- about modern-day pirates close to China.

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When people think of piracy and China, they are most likely to think of intellectual pirates, but maritime piracy still is a modern problem which threatens international shipping.

But while China has been engaged in international efforts to combat piracy, it has largely neglected domestic maritime piracy.

Defining piracy in regard to China is the a major challenge because, according to Manjiao Chi ( 池漫郊), a professor of international law at Ximen University's School of Law, “China does not have specialized domestic laws against piracy” and “neither expressly criminalizes piracy, nor provides a clear definition of piracy.”

This makes it impossible for China to prosecute pirates on piracy charges. The Chinese legal system gets around this by punishing pirates for other crimes. For example, when 12 Chinese men and one Indonesian man were executed for hijacking a ship and murdering the crew, they were convicted of murder and robbery.

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Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG
A worker walks at the Tianjin Port in China, March 4, 2009. Most domestic piracy in China occurs close to Yellow Sea ports.

While this may be effective punishment, it asserts that Chinese domestic laws for crimes such as robbery and murder apply over international waters. Not prosecuting pirates under an anti-piracy law also makes it difficult to determine how frequently piracy is committed near China. Some cases are reported individually and often only in the local press, which makes them difficult and time consuming to track and leads to an incomplete picture of the problem.

There are a few possible explanations as to why China does not have a modern anti-piracy law. One explanation suggests that lawmakers may not see a need for a modern anti-piracy law. Even if the Chinese government holds this view, it clearly sees international piracy as a problem, having ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in 1996. The Chinese government may see UNCLOS and other portions of international law as adequate for dealing with international piracy. However, as Manjiao Chi attests, UNCLOS “is based on the presumption that states have or will enact adequate domestic anti-piracy legislation.” China needs to update its piracy laws in order to more effectively be in compliance with international treaties on combatting piracy.

China needs to update its piracy laws in order to more effectively be in compliance with international treaties on combatting piracy.

Pirates on the Yellow Sea

China’s response to modern domestic piracy could be demonstrated through one case study in the Yellow Sea. Since Chinese law does not provide a definition of piracy and UNCLOS is not applicable to domestic piracy, a definition of piracy is needed. For our purposes, piracy shall be defined as acts or attempted acts of robbery aboard ships by people who were not supposed to be on the ship. This includes unauthorized boarding or attempted boarding of a ship.

Our only sources of information on these pirates appear to be piracy reports from the International Maritime Organization (IMO), an office of the UN, and the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), an office of the International Chamber of Commerce. These reports typically include the name of the ship, the country the ship was registered in, the location, the date, and a brief description. Some reports lack some of these details. The IMO and IMB are dependent on others reporting these incidents to them.

Further complicating the use of these sources is that the IMO and IMB data does not always match in terms of the number of reports or in categorization. To illustrate this issue, I will use an incident that occurred in Yangzhou, a city in eastern China's Jiangsu Province in 2016. Enough of the data -- the date, March 27, and the name of the ship, SBI Athena of the Marshall Islands -- matches that we can confirm that it is the same incident.

According to the description in the IMB’s annual piracy report for 2016, “Robbers disguised as stevedores boarded the berthed ship during cargo operations and escaped with the ship’s properties.” The IMO’s report for March 2016 said that the “Duty Officer on security patrol at Yangzhou Conch terminal for loading operation discovered five fire nozzles from the fire boxes had been stolen.”

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Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG
The Chinese bulk carrier De Xin Hai was the victim of piracy in the Indian ocean, but the problem also exists much closer to port.

Further problematic with this particular incident are details of the location. The IMB report simply lists “Yangzhou Conch Terminal, China” as the location of the incident with no GPS coordinates. The IMO monthly report lists the location of the incident as “Yellow Sea” and “Yangzhou, China” and provides GPS coordinates of “31°, 16’ N, 119°, 25 E”, which are not in the Yellow Sea, but to the southwest of the Yellow Sea in the city of Yangzhou. Meanwhile, a map at the bottom of the IMB’s annual piracy report includes a pinpoint approximately where the city of Yangzhou is suggesting that the IMO’s label of this incident being in the Yellow Sea is incorrect.

The coordinates given by the IMO lead to a farmhouse by a small lake in Jiangsu Province.


There have been 13 reported incidents of piracy in the Yellow Sea between the start of 2015 and the end of the first quarter of 2018 according to the IMB. Identifying who the pirates are helps to determine their motivations, but the reports from the IMB simply describe the pirates as men with no other physical description. There is also no information in these reports to determine whether any of these pirates were arrested by the Chinese authorities. Even if a pirate was arrested, the public would not be guaranteed any information.

Fishers turned pirates

There is enough information to guess that the pirates are most likely Chinese fisherman. The most telling piece of information is an incident in 2015 where pirates “in a wooden fishing boat” boarded the cargo ship Alpha Era. This attack was an anomaly because it specified the attacking boat was a fishing boat, the attackers were reported to be armed with knives and there were eight pirates involved, which is a larger number than any other attack.

However, there are reasons to believe that Chinese fisherman are the most likely people committing other acts of piracy in the Yellow Sea. When boats used by the pirates are described in the reports, there are usually described as “small” or “wooden” which is consistent with a description of a fishing boat. All of the attacks are close to a Chinese port and are listed in IMB reports by the closest Chinese port. If the pirates were North Koreans, there would be attacks closer to the Korean Peninsula as well as in the Sea of Japan (also known as the East Sea), but there have been none reported.

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Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG
Fish farmers catch fish in Huai'an, Jiangsu Province, China Dec. 28, 2017.

Another reason why the pirates are most likely fisherman is that the people who turn to piracy tend to have maritime experience. Marcus Rediker’s study of the social world of Anglo-American pirates notes that almost all of the Anglo-American pirates in the early 1700s had previously been “merchant seamen, Royal Navy sailors, or privateersmen.” These were all people who had the strength and expertise to operate a ship.

While modern technology has made it easier to use a boat and travel faster, there’s no indication that the ships being used by pirates in the Yellow Sea have this technology. In 2015, China had 370,000 fishing vessels that were not powered by an engine, according to the Fisheries and Aquaculture Department of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization.

The descriptions of wooden boats reinforce the idea that these boats are most likely sailing ships and require strength and expertise. Fishermen would have that expertise while unemployed miners and factory workers would not. It’s possible that the wooden boats could be row boats, but those can not get away quickly, making them unsuitable for acts of piracy.

Finally, attacks typically do not occur during the fishing season, indicating that piracy might be a form of off-season employment.

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Sources: IMB Annual Piracy Reports 2015-2017, IMB First Quarter Piracy Report for 2018
A crime of desperation

The use of wooden boats indicates that these pirates do not have a lot of financial resources to draw upon and need good results from their fishing in order to survive. Ignoring that economic data from the Chinese government may be inaccurate, the economy of Liaoning Province, which is on the border of the Yellow Sea and North Korea, only grew by 2.1 percent in the first half of 2017, which is much worse than the reported national growth rate of 6.9 percent. Liaoning’s unemployment rate was 7 percent in 2016, although critics say that is an underestimate. 140,375 workers lost their jobs in the fishing industry between 2013 and 2014 due to Chinese government restrictions on fishing.

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Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG
A statue of China's late Chairman Mao Zedong is seen in front of buildings during a hazy day in Shenyang, Liaoning Province, May 7, 2013.

The attack targets provide some insight as to motive. Of the 13 ships attacked, 10 were bulk carriers, ships designed to haul loose cargo such as grain or coal. However, only two attacks successfully got away with the ships stores which indicates that the cargo was not primarily targeted. Fuel was stolen twice as often as the stores.

Fuel was likely targeted because a pirate knows that a commercial ship has it and it is less noticeable if a pirate uses or sells it. Some of the pirates who steal fuel even manage to get away without being noticed until they are gone. Targeting fuel, as well as the lack of reported weapons indicates that these pirates were opportunistic in their approach.

Another indicator that the pirates are opportunistic is the status of the ship when it was attacked. All of the ships attacked were either anchored close to shore or docked at a port, which makes them easier to attack and board and could allow pirates to attack from land.

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Sources: IMB Annual Piracy Reports 2015-2017, IMB First Quarter Piracy Report for 2018
Flags of Convenience

The countries of registration for the ships attacked include Panama, Liberia, The Marshall Islands, Malta, Singapore, Japan, and the Isle of Man. The ships may not necessarily be from those countries but sailing under “flags of convenience” -- states that allow ships to register with that country to take advantage of their limited regulations, lack of taxes and cheap labor.

This further obscures the identity of the owner making it difficult to determine whether the ship’s owner affects the likelihood of it getting attacked. The use of flags of convenience discourages China from taking action against pirates. States with flags of convenience do not prioritize the regulation and safety of ships -- the very thing that attracts owners to their registries. States with flags of convenience are not naval or diplomatic powers so they do not have the resources combat piracy.

The use of flags of convenience discourages China from taking action against pirates.

China’s response

The limited number of reported attacks and limited success of the attacks also discourages action from being taken. The limited success of the pirates also may discourage ships from reporting acts of piracy so the amount of piracy in the Yellow Sea may be under reported.

The lack of media coverage on these pirates also contributes to the problem remaining unaddressed, and indicates that the acts of piracy in the Yellow Sea are not a high concern for the Chinese government. Yet the Chinese government should be concerned because these incidents point to larger economic problems in the region.

If the Chinese government became interested in deterring piracy, there are a few steps that could be taken. Patrols in the Yellow Sea and watchmen in ports would help deter piracy as the pirates try to avoid confrontation. Hiring watchmen would provide jobs for the unemployed and which could also deter them from partaking in piracy as long as they are sufficiently compensated. If they are attacking at night, boats with lights and an alarm would help deter piracy.

Another option to deter piracy is a program to subsidize fisherman and others who are working legally but are struggling economically.

Another option to deter piracy is a program to subsidize fisherman and others who are working legally but are struggling economically. This would allow them to continue to work while deterring them from engaging in piracy for supplemental income. A subsidy program would also give the government more information about the region’s fishing industry as it would allow for the creation of a registry of those receiving subsidies.

The use of one or both of the options needs to be paired with investments into the economy of northeastern China if the country is serious about ending piracy in the Yellow Sea. Long-term economic investment into northeastern China is necessary as this could provide pirates and would-be pirates with alternatives that are safer and more economically profitable than piracy.

Read Next: The Chinese Female Pirate Who Commanded 80,000 Outlaws

TNL Editor: Morley J Weston

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