Ocean Imaginary and China’s Overfishing in the Age of Water

Research output: Contribution to conferenceConference paper


“Invent liquid history and the ages of water.” ––Michel Serres, The Birth of Physics

River Elegy (Heshang), a widely popular TV documentary series of the 1980s in China, uses the Yellow River as an analogy to describe how traditional Chinese civilization was dried up because of its isolation and conservatism, and laments China’s land-based empire is destined to be defeated by maritime countries backed by modern science. The documentary envisions that China’s rejuvenation must rely on its will to embrace the flowing blue seas in order to emulate the explorative, open cultures of the modern West. For the culture of modernity, fluids may be far more significant than solids. Over last three decades, China’s economic rise has been spectacular, and the nation is committed in rapidly modernizing its naval forces. But the rising tide of Chinese sea-power or owning a state-of-the-art, blue-water navy with access denial power and global reach is not equivalent to a culture of openness or the end of a closed political system. Ocean imaginary in the twenty-first century China does not necessarily mean liberalization. A New Year concert held in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People in 2012 was entitled “Our Ocean” (Women de haiyang) to trumpet that becoming a great sea power was part of the nation’s renaissance. The thought of seas under the authoritative policy is confined to enhancing and safeguarding China’s maritime rights, interests and power.

Whether China’s naval expansion can challenge the sea order maintained by the United States remains questionable. However, China does support the world’s largest fishing fleet, and its distant water vessels operate around the globe due to overfishing and pollution of Chinese coastal waters. China’s two-decade-old policy of subsidizing fishing reflects its ocean economic expansion ambition and assertion of national revival to claims its share of high seas’ resources. Food security and economic factors indeed are the major driving forces for the outward expansion of China’s marine fishery. China’s seafood consumption represents one-third of the world total, while exporting half its seafood production to the developed countries. The fishing industry has to seek fish stocks further afield to plunder resources in order to meet growing Chinese demand even with devastating environmental consequences. Its distant water fishing fleet goes everywhere and is accused of violating the rules around environmental protection and sustainable fishing (and sometimes sovereignty of other nations). The huge operations of the Chinese fleet that have been charged for overfishing the world’s oceans arouse many criticisms: China had the worst score in the world on the Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing Index in 2019; the hideous practice of shark finning is unacceptably inhumane and drives the species to extinction; the amount of plastic waste from China’s fishing fleets disposing into the ocean is immeasurable; Chinese fishing vessels are infamous for their disregard for norms and defying other’s sovereignty that threatens the stability of many maritime countries that depend on the ocean’s resources for food and economic development.

In this presentation, I understand the impacts generated by China’s overfishing and the global reach of its sea power in the materialist frame as fluid dynamics. The early reform period of the nation, though producing eddies or swirls, could be seen as “smooth flows” that has brought mutual economic benefits to itself as well as other nations. But the recent surge of China’s own transformations results with strong turbulence and can be categorized as “tough flows.” Given China’s growingly aggressive actions under Xi Jinping regime in global scale, it is not surprising that the nation is generally depicted as an evil actor in the realms of world politics and environmental issue. The emphasis on the China threat alone, however, cannot fully describe the complex interplay of forces and intertwined relations in understanding and thinking the problems of climate change and the Anthropocene.

In a world that deviates from equilibrium and established hegemony, the China threat is conceptually grasped as vortices that constitute major components of turbulent flows. The vortex rolls its viscosity outward to affect the global fluxes and counter-currents, creating the situations for changes, dissipations, deformations, or spiraling towards its end. I argue the conflict between Western discourse of progress and China’s narrative of return or rejuvenation may set the groundwork for the use of different perspectives in theorizing the fluid, processual, and networked complexity of contemporary world. The idea that fish stocks are mobile resources for human appropriation also requires reconceptualization of their relationality. The age of water has to be invented so as to bypass the patterns of domination and exploitation in order to reach the fluid zones for theorizing the world.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 3 Dec 2020
EventInternational Symposium: Wind, Water, Cloud in China-related Spaces for the Anthropocene Cultural Imaginary 2020 - Hong Kong Baptist University, Online, Hong Kong
Duration: 3 Dec 20203 Dec 2020


SymposiumInternational Symposium: Wind, Water, Cloud in China-related Spaces for the Anthropocene Cultural Imaginary 2020
Country/TerritoryHong Kong


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