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from the December 2019 issue

Massacre in the Pacific: A Personal Account

A Chinese fishing expedition devolves into a mutinous bloodbath in “Massacre in the Pacific,” reporter Du Qiang’s interview with one of the few crew members who made it home alive.


The Lurongyu 2682, which belonged to the Rongcheng Aquatic Product Company of Shandong Province, was a squid-jigging vessel measuring thirty to forty meters long and with a 330 kW power engine. In December 2010, it set off to fish for squid off the coast of Chile and Peru, with a crew of thirty-three on board. At some point, contact was lost with the parent company. When, eight months later, it was towed into port by the Chinese fishing authorities, only eleven crew members remained on board. The investigation that followed lasted almost two years. The eleven were convicted of murdering twenty-two fellow crew members, and six were condemned to death. Du Qiang, reporting for Esquire China, interviewed the first crewmember to be released after serving his sentence and asked him to tell the whole story.

 

Du Qiang: Most people live fairly rule-bound lives and maintain the belief that their fellow human beings for the most part do likewise. They are firmly convinced that it is a basic human condition to be ordinary, that on the whole, both good deeds and evil doings are of the banal kind. And on the whole, this view is more or less correct. However, as you will read below, there are exceptions to this rule.

Toward the end of October 2014, I was in the suburbs of a small town in northeast China to interview a man whom I shall call “Zhao Mucheng” about the Lurongyu 2682 massacre four years prior. I have changed his name at his request.

At the time of our interview, Zhao Mucheng had just served a four-year sentence for his part in the massacre and had been released. We first met on a country road one cold, windy day. He was in his late twenties, with a weather-beaten face and eyes that drooped at the corners, and his short, stocky frame was enveloped in a khaki-colored jacket. He might have come out of a photograph from a hundred years ago. He had a slightly diffident air, and a habit of glancing behind you every now and then. 

“What do you want to know?” he asked me. 

My answer was simple: “I want to know about the people.”

“Tell me how the killing happened, and about Liu Guiduo,” I said.

We sat on the embankment of his local Liuhe River, fishing. This seemed somehow symbolic, even though it was nothing like squid-jigging. It was fishing off Chile and Peru on the other side of the world that had gotten him into trouble in the first place. At that moment, he seemed anxious. The place was deserted, yet he kept looking around, standing up, pacing the empty ground behind him, then coming to sit down again and staring blankly at the river.

Finally, he gave me his personal account of what had happened four years before.

 

Something Ominous Happened on the First Day

DQ: On the very first day on board the Lurongyu 2682, something ominous happened, crewmember Zhao Mucheng told me.

Zhao Mucheng: “It was very weird what happened on the first day. It was November, and the first to go was the ship’s cook, a man called Yan. He was from Dalian, he’d been recruited by the first officer, and he’d had loads of experience on other ships. That evening, everyone was playing poker on board and I was reading a story on my phone. A bit past eight o’clock, the cook started yelling: “Murder! Murder!” He carried on shouting and yelling till after midnight. Whichever room he was in, he really put the wind up the men with him. It was nearly one in the morning when the ship’s captain finally got him up on deck and chewed him out. He sat down and behaved himself after that.

“But after he’d been sitting there a while, he got up and disappeared. We all thought he’d gone to the bathroom, we thought he was OK. But he’d jumped into the sea. It had gone really cold that day and there was a strong north wind blowing, force 5 or 6, and he jumped from Jiekou Pier on Shidao Island and started swimming around in the harbor. We went to pick him up, but it took about half an hour and it was pitch-dark. Luckily, there was a boat at anchor nearby and they rescued him before we got there.

“The first officer sent him home. His family said he’d been under a lot of pressure ever since his mom died, but a few days at home and he was better. He wanted to come back on board,but in the end it didn’t work out. So they took on a new chef, a man called Xia.”

DQ: The substitute chef, Xia, was in fact the first crewmember to be killed a short time later. 

ZMC: “It was so weird. It happened the very first day, not a long time into the trip. It happened right at the start, the trawler hadn’t set out, the supplies weren’t on board yet, and the machinery still needed a complete pre-check.”

 

A Volley of Firecrackers and the Lurongyu 2682 Sets off for Peru

ZMC: “It was Cui Yong who got me hired. Cui Yong was from Dalian. He was alright. In fact, we got on very well. We once worked in the same restaurant. Back then, I had a roadside barbecue in my township, but it was a very wet summer and I hardly earned a thing. Anyway, Cui Yong called, and we chatted about this and that. Then two days later he called again and told me about the job. He said it paid 45,000 yuan a year and a bonus when the job was done.

“I’d just got myself a girlfriend and I knew I didn’t have the money, not enough to satisfy her. I wanted to earn a bit, at least enough to give me some savings, so I thought I’d go along and take a look.

“First, there was the seafarer’s certificate, I thought I’d better do that, and anyway the company paid part of it. There were three days of classes and a test, which was basically to copy everything out and you got the certificate. That was in Dalian, and after that, on October 5, I went to Shandong.

“All I was bothered about was the wages. I wanted to earn some money, and I couldn’t earn anything on land. I thought I’d do the two years’ minimum and I wouldn’t have a chance to spend my earnings, so I could put it all away and set up a small business when I got back on land. 

“When we got to the company offices, the ship hadn’t come back to port yet, so we waited. They needed a crew of thirty-three, there were thirty-five to start with but a couple left for family reasons, one ’cause his mom got run over by a truck or had a fall. Anyway, she broke her arm, and there was no one at home to look after her. So he left.  

“I met all the others before we set off, because we had our meals and stuff together. They weren’t anything special, they were just like me, in it to make a bit of money.

“There was one called Xiang Lishan, though. His hair was all gray and he was about fifty. He said he’d killed people and had done two stints in a laogai labor camp.” 

DQ: Actually, Xiang Lishan had committed two robberies. There were at least two men on board who had criminal records, one of whom had served a long sentence.

The thirty-three crew members were made up of the ship’s captain, Li Chengquan; first officer Fu Yizhong; second officer Wang Yongbo; first engineer Wen Dou; and second engineer Wang Yanlong. The rest were all ordinary seamen. Most of them came from northeast China: Shenyang, Chaoyang, Dandong, Fushun, Dalian, and Changchun, as well as Inner Mongolia and Shandong. Most were there because they had relatives or friends on board. For instance, Wen Dou and another crewmember, Wen Mi, were cousins; and second officer Wang Yongbo was a cousin of the wife of crewmember Wu Guozhi. Wang Peng, a twenty-year-old from Dalian, had been brought along by Wen Dou. The latter was also doing onboard training to be a pilot. Wang Peng was determined to see a bit of the world and ignored his family’s objections to him signing up. 

ZMC: “There were some Mongolians too, who spoke in Mongolian between themselves, so no one else understood them. The one I knew was Cui Yong.

“Cui Yong used to work on the buses. One night, he was playing mah-jongg and drinking with his buddies in their room. He got wastedand burned the building down, and had to pay a lot of compensation, so he’d signed up to this trip so he could earn the money to pay the owners back. He was a happy-go-lucky guy, a bit taller than me and very chubby.

“We didn’t set off right away, it took a few days for supplies to be loaded―all kinds of fish, meat, rice, and noodles provided by the company, and fresh vegetables too. Then there were lamps―you had to use those to lure the squid. We carried poles with hooks at each end to hang the lamps from. They were 2 kW each, Phillips, this big . . . and when you had a dozen or so set up, they were so bright you couldn’t look at them for long, it made your eyes run.

“I brought pot noodles, mineral water, soft drinks, beer, and so on, got them with my own money. Everyone had half a dozen packs of beer with them. I had thirty cartons of cigarettes too, ’cause they had to last for two years. I could get more but they’d be expensive, a carton could cost you a hundred and eighty yuan on board the ship.

“When it came time to leave home, my family didn’t want me to leave, they said it was too far, but I told them I was going . . . not going felt a bit like saying I couldn’t cope with the hardships and was chickening out.

“Besides, I’d already spent more than seven thousand on my seafarer’s certificate and the stuff I’d bought.

“A few days later, we set off. The company sent seven ships off at the same time, some of them had unregistered crew, but on ours, all the crew had their certificates. We cleared customs and were checked out by the port authority. So, customs and immigration done, and then we were off. Ten minutes later, we stopped again, the company had sent a boat after us with more men, a dozen of them, none of them with certificates. Liu Guiduo was one of them.

“Liu Guiduo had brought a hundred and sixty-five cartons of cigarettes and stacked them up on his bunk right up to the ceiling. He got through three packets a day. He used to say: ‘It’s such shit working on a ship, I’m not gonna go short of smokes.’

“He’d bought them on credit.

“It all went really well for starters, water as far as the eye could see, you had this great feeling of space and light. But then after a bit, you couldn’t see land anymore, and it made you feel a bit lost. I started to throw up several times a day, I was seasick for sixteen days. 

“On the trip out, everyone got on fine. We spent all day on board playing mah-jongg, talking all sorts of nonsense, shooting our mouths off, saying what we’d do when we got back with the money, like buy a new model of car or go out on the town, spend it all, every last cent, and so on. Not that I’m a big one for talking. I’m better at listening.

“The rest of them played paigow every day, I joined in sometimes. You didn’t bet much, just whatever bits of cash you had on you. I hardly spent any of my money, I lent two or three thousand to Cui Yong. To be honest, I don’t like lending money, especially not for gambling.

“When we’d almost reached Peru, I was in the dorm one day and saw Liu Guiduo had left his notebook lying there. I flipped through it and it had all sorts of numbers written down. I asked him what they were, and he said they were the ship’s coordinates. I asked why, and he said, ‘No reason, just for a bit of fun.’

“Actually, it was hard to tell what that man was really thinking. He always seemed to have something on his mind, but no one knew what it was.

“Nearly six weeks after we’d left, at the end of February, we got to where we were headed, the waters off Peru, and started fishing. When it got dark at night, we lit the lamps, and along came the squid. You lowered the hooks and waited to feel a bite. There was nothing to it, you just watched and you saw how to do it, though at the start it was hard to tell if the squid were biting. If you brought in one that weighed ten pounds, it was too heavy and you needed two people to pull it in. 

“A few months went by and I always hauled in less than the other men. Liu Guiduo got the most, one month he got 13,000 pounds. We were quite near each other and I followed what he was doing, like I asked him how deep to go. He said if there were no squid at fifty meters, then to go down to seventy. I kept my hooks in good repair, but he never fixed his even once, and once his got in a mess, but still he caught loads.

“Liu Guiduo, Cui Yong, and Huang Jinbo, and a few other guys of about the same age, we all used to chat together, but Liu, if he didn’t like someone, he wouldn’t give them the time of day. So although most of the time I got on well with him, I couldn’t help thinking he was full of himself and looked down on the rest of us.”

 

Illegal Maritime Workers

ZMC: “There are buying-ships out at sea. When your hold is full of squid, you can unload into a buying-ship. Each man has to carry a tray weighing thirty pounds down into the bilge. It’s such hard work, and I’m short, too, which makes it even worse. When it’s time to unload the squid, you might end up spending two days and a night without getting any sleep.

“Actually, once we got going, I didn’t think Liu Guiduo was all that bad. I heard he’d been in the army. You wouldn’t call him strong, he was even a little scrawny, but he looked out for other people. When it was time to unload the squid, Liu Guiduo would let me off ’cause I’m short. So I only had to do it once, or maybe twice. And he helped me each time. 

“I didn’t know much about his family, but he must have been pretty poor. His parents were farmers from Heilongjiang. 

“I don’t know who started the rumor, but before long, people were saying that the company wasn’t paying us the right wages. They said when we got back we should say something about it. That the company was trying to not pay us what they owed and our contracts weren’t right. We’d been told at first we’d get at least 45,000, but actually it was 2.5 mao for every pound of squid, so you’d only get that much if you caught enough fish.

“Liu Guiduo was pretty smart and he worked out that he wouldn’t be able to earn enough to even cover his smokes. I thought there was no way that a big company like that would try to do us out of our pay. 

“We only talked about this among ourselves and didn’t mention it to the captain. 

“The captain, Li Chengquan, was sentenced to death in the end. He was a big, tall, and bad-tempered man. If anyone talked back to him he would give them a black eye. When arguments started among the crew, he would give anyone from his hometown a clip round the ears. 

“The new chef, Xia, was a bit of a show-off and liked to brownnose the captain. He thought he was a man of the world because he was a bit older. He was from the same part of Heilongjiang as another crewmember, Jiang Xiaolong. One evening, before it all happened, Xia had been drinking. He started ranting at Jiang Xiaolong and made such a racket that Jiang picked up a knife and threatened to stab him. In the end we had to go down and split them up. The captain landed a few left hooks on Jiang and threatened to sack him. Jiang knelt down before the captain and said, ‘I’ve messed up. I’ve drunk too much.’ Liu Guiduo also spoke up for Jiang. Maybe it was then that Jiang and Xia became enemies. 

“Bit by bit, we grew jaded, and got lazy and unruly. There were more and more shirkers. In the morning, when the fishing was over, the catch had to be divided into trays of thirty poundseach. Any squid over eightpoundshad to be split up. There’s the head, that’s the bit shaped like a triangle, then the fins and the rest of the body, first you weighed it, then you sorted it into the different parts and gave it a wash. Then loaded up the tray and froze it. That’s it. 

“Crew on other squid boats would finish around eight or nine o’clock in the morning. But we had to work to ten, eleven, even midday. By that time there would be nobody else around, everyone would have slacked off. In the end the captain stopped caring and got mad. He was always yelling but nobody took any notice. Anyone left would work until two in the afternoon before getting any sleep. I suggested to the captain that we work shifts, but he ignored that too. 

“Liu Guiduo was alright, not too lazy. But he was always taking people aside for a quiet chat. His mind wasn’t on the fishing either.”

DQ: The case records show that Liu Guiduo had asked the captain if he could be sent home early. The captain had replied, ‘You can’t go back. You don’t have your papers, so no other boat would dare take you. It would be people-smuggling. You’ll have to stick it out, like it or not.’ Liu Guiduo’s intention to sue the company turned out to be impossible, because the company had used a fake seal to ‘sign’ its contracts with the crew. They were, in effect, a group of illegal sea workers.  

The way this situation played out was, therefore, entirely dependent on the nature of the men on board. 

ZMC: “One day, Liu Guiduo told me, ‘We’re working too hard. The company is so greedy, they’re not even paying us minimum wage. We’re never going to get what’s in our contracts.’ He wanted to get home and sue the company. He even said he knew a pretty good lawyer in Jinan. I asked him, ‘How can we get back?’ He hesitated but didn’t say anything.

“As he walked off, he told me one more thing. ‘It’s not a crime to kill someone on the high seas, you know.’”

 

Mutiny and Murder
June 16, 2011: One Person Killed in Chilean Waters

DQ: Liu Guiduo’s secret conversations continued for the next fortnight. And Zhao Mucheng spent time every day sorting out the fishing tackle before lowering the squid jigs into a calm sea. 

ZMC: “One evening, the jigs hadn’t been in long before the squid were hooked. After raising the jigs I remembered there was a new knife with a very smooth, newly sharpened edge on the foredeck. I went off to fetch it. When I got back, there was someone leaning over into the hold hatch fora chat. It was Liu Guiduo.

“When he saw the knife, Liu said, ‘That’s a good knife, give it here, can I take a look? I’ll give it straight back once I’ve had a try.’ When he handed it back to me, he said, ‘We’re going to hijack the ship later, want to join us?’

“As soon as he said the word hijack, I told him ‘Count me out.’ He replied, ‘When it’s all over, we’re gonnaget anyone who didn’t go along with it and chuck them in the life rafts. Then we’ll contact another boat to come and get us so we can go home.’ I told him, ‘Look, I’m not up for this, I can’t do it.’ He said fine, then took the squid knife back and walked off. 

“I went back to my jigging. I was pretty scared right then, thinking about how they were going to seize the ship. But I didn’t dare say anything to anyone ’cause I didn’t know who was with him. All I could do was keep an eye on things and see if I could work out who looked like they were with him.

“I knew that the first and second officers were definitely not. Not the first engineer either.They were all the captain’s men. But they were too far away from me; I couldn’t go up to warn them, it would have been too obvious.

“None of the crew around me was talking. They were all putting on an act. They all had knives on them.

“After a while, Huang Jinbo came out. He hadn’t done any work for days ’cause he kept fainting; he had low blood sugar brought on by his anemia. He was all dressed up, he’d even put his shoes on. I asked him what he was up to, but he just ignored me and went straight to the captain’s cabin. It wasn’t long before Liu Guiduo and a few others went up there too. As soon as I saw that, I knew it was starting. 

“The lights on the ship were so bright and dazzling, I couldn’t see what was going on in the captain’s cabin. They hadn’t been in there long before Liu Guiduo was shouting [DQ: at everyone] to weigh anchor and bring in the jigs, in the end we just did it ’cause we didn’t know if it [DQ: the order] was coming from the captain or someone else. 

“Someone was standing guard over one end of the gangway ladder—the one that went up to the upper deck. He had a knife. That’s when we all knew things were really bad. 

“Then I think the first and second officers and the first engineer [DQ: the captain’s men] went up. They weren’t carrying anything. When they got up there, they tried to talk the others round, saying, ‘If you want to get home this isn’t the way to do it, just say the word and we’ll turn round and that’ll be the end of it.’

“Anyway, when I heard them say that, I knew it must be over, so I went over to the front deck.

“I should say that I couldn’t hear what Liu Guiduo was saying clearly because of the noise from the engine. The second officer started the engine and began to weigh anchor. While that was happening, Xia, the guy who cooked our food, came rushing up with a knife, yelling, ‘Who do you sons of bitches think you are, trying to hijack the ship?’

“I heard shouting from the cabin. Liu Guiduo yelled, ‘Put it down, put it down!’ And then there was no more noise. 

DQ:I only found out a year ago how the chef, Xia Qiyong, died. The scant details were enclosed in the pages of some case notes sent to me by a friend:

At 11 p.m. on June 16, 2011, Liu Guiduo incited Huang Jinbo and Wang Peng to destroy the onboard communications equipment and GPS system and arranged for Jiang Xiaolong and some others to guard the gangway ladder. He then colluded with a group that included Bao De and Shuang Xi to break into the captain’s cabin armed with knives and sticks. They used the threat of beating and stabbing to coerce the captain to return the ship to base. On discovering this situation, the chef, Xia, rushed into the captain’s cabin to attempt rescue, armed with a knife. He was stabbed twice in the back by his longtime enemy, crewmember Jiang Xiaolong. Xia turned to grab the blade and in the struggle his left leg was crushed by a blow from an iron club. He fell to the ground and Jiang Xiaolong stabbed him once in the chest and twice in the neck. Liu Guiduo got the knife back and then ordered that Xia be thrown into the water.

ZMC: “After a while, Huang Jinbo came down the gangway ladder and came over from the right. ‘Got any smokes?’ he asked. When I passed him one, I realized his hand was shaking. He told me, ‘Xia’s dead.’

DQ: After recounting this experience, Zhao Mucheng clasped his hands, then reached into his bag for a cigarette.

ZMC: “Huang Jinbo stayed with me for a while. I don’t know when he left. Then a while later, Jiang Xiaolong—he liked to call me ‘young Zhao’ ’cause he was ten years older than me—anyway, he shouted down at me from the upper deck, ‘Come up here.’ I didn’t know what was up, so I really took my time getting up there. He said, ‘Why don’t you go up and get some sleep, young Zhao, it’s no big deal, but he’s dead, so you’ll have to start doing the cooking tomorrow morning.’

“I said OK and went up. I was just about to step onto the upper deck when I saw there was blood everywhere. I remembered then that I wasn’t wearing any shoes, I’d taken them off, so I had to go barefoot. I took my rain gear off, went into the cabin, and lay down. I couldn’t get to sleep, thinking about what was going to happen next, my imagination running riot.”

 

“Going Back” and “The Fucking Poser”

ZMC: “I shared a cabin with eleven other men. When the others eventually came back there was no big fuss. Everyone was pretty quiet. They just got undressed. One crewmember—Bao Baocheng—he said, ‘If we’ve lost a man, we’ve lost a man. When we get back we should just say he fell into the sea and was pulled under by a fish. Things like that are always happening at sea; it’ll be really easy to explain away.’ Liu Guiduo didn’t say anything, didn’t agree or argue, he just sat there mending his shoes.

“From that moment on, it was like Liu Guiduo had become another person.”

DQ: After the mutiny, the captain, Li Chengquan, was forced to reset the satellite navigation to go back to China, and Wang Peng took over as pilot.

ZMC: “The evening that we started back, we agreed that we’d go round Hawaii and then head west. If all went smoothly, it would take around fifty days to get back to China. Liu Guiduo and the others had taken the communications equipment apart during the hijack. The next day they gathered all the squid knives and locked the lifeboats up tightly with steel bars. A group of four men, armed with knives, took turns watching the captain, first officer, and second officer. They weren’t allowed out. There were nine men in Liu Guiduo’s gang. Most of the decisions were made by him and Bao De, who was from Inner Mongolia.”

DQ: Liu Guiduo’s gang of mutineers grew in number slightly in the following days, leveling off at around eleven men. Although Liu Guiduo was in charge, six of the members, all from Inner Mongolia, were actually loyal to Bao De.

Huang Jinbo played the role of Liu Guiduo’s lackey. Just nineteen, Huang was the youngest crewmember and the closest in age to both Liu Guiduo and Zhao Mucheng.

ZMC: “Huang Jinbo was from Yakeshi [DQ: in Inner Mongolia]. He was tall and thin and still looked like a kid. I can’t remember who told me that hisfamily in Beijing was pretty well-off, with a house and a car, but he had always dreamed of being a sailor ever since he was a kid. He only started smoking after coming on board. Liu Guiduo would give him smokes and never asked for any money for them.

“When I first came on board, I thought that Liu Guiduo had so many smokes with him because he was planning to sell them to earn some cash.

“Liu Guiduo was like a big brother to Huang Jinbo. Huang did everything he said.

“Whenever they had a meeting, Huang Jinbo would make notes of what Liu Guiduo said.

“Everyone was pretty nervous when we started back, but actually the next couple of weeks were pretty relaxed. We were all just happy at the thought of going home. If we’d lost a man, we’d lost a man. We’d just say he fell into the sea and was pulled under by a fish. These things often happen at sea. It would be easy to explain away. 

“Slowly, the other crew members started to drink and play cards. But they never mentioned Xia by name. They’d call him ‘that fucking poser.’

“By the timewe were about two weeks from home, I was actually feeling pretty relaxed. Since we weren’t jigging, every day before sunrise I’d go to the cargo hold to fetch vegetables, noodles, fish, meat—we still had pork, it was all frozen. Anyway, it wasn’t too bad, so I did it happily enough.”

DQ: Since the incident, the captain, Li Chengquan, had been kept under guard by Liu Guiduo’s gang. 

 

Elimination of the Management

DQ: Nine people were killed in waters west of Hawaii around July 20, 2011.

ZMC: “Liu Guiduo didn’t say another word to me for nearly three weeks after Xia was killed. He just hung out with his gang, only talking to them and not letting anyone else say so much as a whisper. I figured out—well, I was pretty suspicious—that Liu Guiduo was saying one moment that ‘we need to leave anyone who wasn’t involved behind,’ and the next that ‘they won’t dare say a word, they’re so worried someone might find out.’ But it was alright actually, Liu’s gang had all been invited to join the crew by the captain ’cause they were from Dalian like him, and because they were all friends, they stuck together.

“There was another rumor going round that there was going to be an attempt on their lives [DQ: the gang of mutineers]. I don’t know who started it, but there were whispers that the second officer and some others had plans to capture the hijackers and get the credit for it from the company when we got back. It was about then that the boat started using more oil, a good few times what it would normally, and we’d lost a few auxiliary engines too. Liu Guiduo was nervous, well, he swore a lot. ‘How the fuck did this happen?’—that type of thing.

“I couldn’t work out why everyone was so happy to do what Liu Guiduo told them. It couldn’t have been ’cause he was older or stronger.”

DQ: If Zhao Mucheng had read the case records as an outsider, as I did, then he would have reached the same conclusion I did. To make the crew follow his orders, Liu Guiduo relied not on force, but on a callous, mistrustful scheming instinct that seemed to delight in ruthlessness. 

Excerpt from the case records: 

"When Liu Guiduo suspected that the first engineer, Wen Dou, was deliberately sabotaging onboard equipment to prevent the hijacked boat from returning to China, one of his fellow accomplices in the mutiny, Bo Fujun, informed him, 'They’re planning to fight back. And they’re trying to get me to join them.'

On further questioning from Liu Guiduo, Bo Fujun volunteered more information about the 'rebels.' But Liu Guiduo believed that 'Bo Fujun has betrayed us.'"

ZMC: “I woke up just after midnight [DQ: Beijing time], when it had just gotten light, and lay there smoking. Everything seemed normal. There weren’t many people in the twelve-berth cabin since the incident and nobody spent much time in there anyway. I could see that most of the beds were empty that day. Just then Liu Chengjian came in to ask anyone who was awake to step outside with him. When I didn’t reply, he shook his head and left. About five minutes later he came back and asked again if anyone was up. Liu Gang, in the bunk below me, woke up and asked what was going on. Liu told him, ‘Come on out with me—it’s nothing much, I just need a hand.’

“Less than two minutes after that, I heard someone yelling. It wasn’t very loud, because the funnel outside the cabin was always chugging away. I didn’t think much of the noise at first. Even when I heard a splash, I still didn’t really worry. Suddenly I heard music blaring from the direction of the helm room and someone crying out in pain. That’s when I realized something wasn’t right.”

DQ: Liu Guiduo was at the helm and was using the loud music to mask the fact that a series of murders had started. As Huang Jinbo lured Wen Dou out of the four-berth cabin and into the pilot room on the poop deck, Jiang Xiaolong and four others seized their chance. Down in the four-berth cabin they stabbed Jiang Mi and threw his dead body overboard. When Wen Dou returned, Jiang Xiaolong and three others stabbed him repeatedly, then threw him into the water. 

Next up were the crew in the twelve-berth cabin. First Yue Peng and then Liu Gang were called out, stabbed repeatedly, and thrown overboard. 

ZMC: “Only a few minutes later, Liu Chengjian and Bao De came in carrying knives. They rushed over to the second officer’s bed. Wang Yongbo only woke up when they began stabbing him. He reached up and tried to grab them but couldn’t. Then he fell to the floor and they each stabbed him again. Then Liu Guiduo came in and said, ‘Hey, isn’t that the second officer? Why are you lying on the floor?’ As he talked, he stabbed the man. ‘I can see your guts leaking out.’ Another stab. ‘Oh, what’s the matter?’ And another stab. There was a trunk between me and the second officer, so I couldn’t see him. But I could see Liu Guiduo: he was bent over at the waist. The squid knife hissed as he pulled it out and the second officer lay there groaning and gasping for breath.

“I just stayed on my bed, too scared to move.

“When he finished, Liu Guiduo straightened up. As he turned around he saw me and said, ‘I asked you to join us at the start but you wouldn’t. Are you scared now?’ He seemed excited to me, he had a huge smile on his face. Then he said, ‘I won’t touch you; you’re my brother.’ But I didn’t believe a word. Liu Guiduo called me his brother, but I’d only known him a few months and ten people had already died. Who could believe what anyone said?

“I couldn’t work him out. He told me later, ‘You’ll get home fine.’ I didn’t know if he was telling the truth. 

“You can’t imagine how powerful Liu Guiduo became when he was killing people. He was a completely different man. The same evening he killed the second officer, Er Xi and Dai Fushun were ordered to force the captain’s men at knifepoint to the side of the ship. When Liu Guiduo realized they didn’t dare do any more, he went over and stabbed the captain’s men twice to show them how it was done. Then he pushed them overboard. I heard him have a go at Er Xi about this later, saying that he was ‘a good-for-nothing piece of dead meat.’”

DQ: Before dawn the next morning, Jiang Shutao had been murdered on the starboard side of the vessel and thrown overboard, and Liu Guiduo had thrown Chen Guojun into the water from the foredeck, alive. In the afternoon, Wu Guozhi was stabbed and then forced to jump overboard. 

The informer suspected of being a traitor, Bo Fujun, did not escape his fate either. At the start of the massacre, Liu Guiduo handed Mei Lincheng and Wang Peng a sharp knife each and told them, “You two need to get your hands dirty. Go ask Bo Fujun if he has a bank card. If he doesn’t, kill him.”

The two men made a surprise attack on Bo Fujun. As he was pushed up against the side of the vessel, bleeding heavily, Liu Guiduo kicked him into the water. 

The investigation team provided the following description in the indictment: “On around July 20, 2011, Liu Guiduo assembled a small group that included Jiang Xiaolong. Together, they formed a plot to murder six men whom they had long suspected of conspiring to resist: Wen Dou, Wen Mi, Yue Peng, Liu Gang, Wang Yongbo, and Jiang Shutao. They also murdered Wu Guozhi and two others."

Li Chengquan, the captain, escaped death by mere chance and continued to be kept under guard. 

 

No Way Out

DQ: The vessel was still a fortnight from China when the sudden massacre interrupted their plans. Liu Guiduo decided to slip across the border into Japan. He told the crew, “I have a friend in Japan who can help get us fake papers.”

At daybreak the morning after the killings, Zhao Mucheng prepared breakfast as usual. It was then he realized how greatly numbers had depleted. 

ZMC: “There was pretty much nobody left apart from Liu Guiduo and his gang. I went up to the rear deck for a bit. There was no blood there at all; they had cleaned it all up in the night. I just kept walking up and down. I didn’t know what to do. I was pretty scared.

“Jiang Xiaolong, the man who killed the cook, saw me out there. He came over and started chatting to me, saying, ‘Stop stressing out, nobody has it in for you, we’re all buddies, we won’t touch you. Look, if I get a proper job one day, I’ll look out for you if I can.’ When he stopped I told him, ‘Just warn me first if you guys decide to kill me, OK, and I’ll throw myself overboard, save you the trouble.’

“That’s what I said, but I didn’t really mean it. What I was actually thinking was, If you come for me, I’ll find a way to get someone else to be the fall guy. But you know what, I might have fooled him a little. 

“Actually, I was completely focused on searching the boat, looking for a place to hide out for the next few weeks, until I could run back home. But there were so many big spaces on board there really wasn’t anywhere to hide. Down at the bottom of the boat there was a freshwater tank. You could get in there to hide, but the top was screwed down, the inlet and outlet were so big that someone could climb in, but the main thing was you couldn’t cover it, so as soon as anyone went down below they’d see you. I ripped up any timber I could find to see if I could hide inside, but everything was filled with foam and too narrow for me to get in. 

“If I could have just found something like a life jacket or a float ball, I would have jumped overboard with it. It would have been OK, I could have taken a fishing rod. And fish eyeballs have drinkable water in them, so you can eat them. I learned that when I studied for my seafarer’s certificate. I even knew how to distill fresh water. But it was no good: the life rafts had been locked down with steel bars and I couldn’t cut them open. They’d gathered up anything that floated too. I wouldn’t have survived if I’d just jumped in, even holding something I wouldn’t have made it without any power. Even if I’d managed to swim out a few hundred meters, the current would just have brought me back.”

 

One Person Goes Missing

ZMC: “There was this university student, Ma Yuzhao, who slept in the berth below me. One evening he told me, ‘Don’t leave me alone.’ By the next morning he’d disappeared. Nobody knew how he’d drowned, there was nothing missing, maybe he’d just swum off. He was definitely dead. When Liu Guiduo heard that Ma Yuzhao had disappeared, he said in front of everyone, ‘Why did he throw himself overboard? I had no plans to kill him, he was one of mine, he was my spy.’

“Nobody had known anything about Mu Yuzhao being a spy. And we didn’t know if it was really true or not. But anyway, because of what Liu Guiduo said, it was like he’d deliberately created this atmosphere. Everyone was scared. You got so uptight if someone approached you, you didn’t want to talk to anyone. The second officer and chief engineer died ’causethey’d been caught talking.”

 

Two Men Secretly Switch Sides

ZMC: “We used to pissover the side of the boat. But by now, I was so scared that someone might creep up on me and push me overboard, I’dtake a good look around before everypiss. Liu Guiduo wasn’t sleeping well himself. He’d moved into the captain’s cabin and had two men guarding him as he slept. He was also worried that I might try to poison them with my cooking and had someone watch me. He tried to cover it up by saying that he was there to keep an eye on the engine room in case the food was damaging the machinery or something, but I knew the real reason. They were keeping an eye on me in case I pulled some trick with the food. I’d known all along that they’d never trusted me.

“Nobody could trust anyone at all by that point. We were all scared.

“One day, Cui Yong—the one who was about the same age as me, Liu Guiduo, and Huang Jinbo—came up to me and said, ‘You get on OK with Liu Guiduo. Can you get him to let us in on the group? They can rely on us,we won’t let them down.’ 

“Cui Yong was pretty lazy normally. When he got hungry, he wouldn’t lift a finger and made me cook for him. Liu Guiduo couldn’t stand him, they argued a lot and I was always breaking them up. That’s why Cui Yong was scared. He’d spoken about joining them a few times. I didn’t want to go see Liu Guiduo at first, but after thinking about it a lot, I decided to, because I was pretty unsure myself.

“First, we spoke to Jiang Xiaolong, who said, ‘Best if you don’t: there’s no going back from this.’ Then he added, ‘But don’t take my word for it. Go see Liu Guiduo yourself if you want to.' Liu Guiduo had moved into the captain’s cabin after the second wave of murders. The two of us stood outside the cabin and called, ‘Come out, bro.’

“When he appeared, Cui Yong said, ‘If there’s anything else planned, count us in, bro, we’ll definitely be on your side.’ He went on and on, and seemed really nervous. I sat in a corner and didn’t say anything. 

“Liu Guiduo turned us down. ‘No, you guys should just get home, OK? I don’t know if we’re gonna have trouble getting into Japan, you should just try your hardest to get back home.’ Cui Yong was still worried. ‘Remember you can count on us if something happens, bro.’

“‘Let’s see what happens. It’ll probably be fine.’ And Liu Guiduo just left without giving a definite yes or no.”

DQ: As Zhao Mucheng spoke, he pulled two small fish the size of a thumb off his fishhook and threw them into the weeds by his feet, leaving them to gasp for air.  

ZMC: “Back then, I really didn’t think I’d get home alive, I just thought if I had to die I wanted to do it a little closer to home. I don’t believe in ghosts—but if they do exist after all, well, I’d rather be a ghost a little closer to home.”

 

A Treacherous Plot

DQ: As Zhao Mucheng and Cui Yong were looking for a way out, another plot was being hatched on board.

According to court documents, around noon oneday, Liu Guiduo summoned all the crew members on deck and ordered them to call home using the satellite phone, tell their family that they were ill, and ask them to remit 5,000 yuan into a post office account. They needed money to get to Japan, he said, but the crew later testified that this was greeted with complaints and suspicion.

Jiang Xiaolong stated: “I said my family had no money and no way of getting any. Liu Guiduo told me to get some anyway, and we had a big argument.”

There were a lot of crew members who couldn’t lay their hands on 5,000 yuan.

That afternoon, the Mongolian gang leader, Bao De, approached Huang Jinbo, a fellow Mongolian who was now one of Liu Guiduo’s cronies. He confided in him: “Liu Guiduo’s planning to take only a couple of his Heilongjiang buddies to Japan with him. He’s gonnakill the rest of us.” Bao De’s objective was to get Huang Jinbo into his gang, and he wanted them to confront Liu Guiduo together. Huang Jinbo agreed. “Liu’s ruthless,” he said. “He even made me tap my family for money. Count me in.”

Bao De gathered all the other Mongolians into the crew’s sleeping quarters on the bottom deck. If there was going to be a fight, they’d give Liu a run for his money.

But Huang Jinbo immediately turned informer, the second one on the vessel.

He testified that after he left Bao De, he went straight to Liu Guiduo. “I’ve got something to tell you,” he said, “and it’s serious.”

“Are Bao De and his buddies out to kill me?” Liu asked immediately.

Huang Jinbo, astonished, could only nod.

That made a big impression on Zhao Mucheng.

“Liu Guiduo was a bit different from the rest of us crew members,” he said. “It was like he was in hiding on the boat.”

 

Devious Stratagems

DQ: Four days after the massacre described above, the members of the Mongolian gang were killed in the waters east of Japan.

Before the killing of the Mongolians, Liu Guiduo and his gang still did not have the upper hand. Liu had run out of new people he could call on and put his trust in. However, his methods were devious and ruthless, dramatic and unorthodox. 

According to court records, Liu Guiduo reacted to Huang Jinbo’s information by turning to the captain, Li Chengquan, his former enemy and now his prisoner, and getting him on his side. “I’ve got seven or eight men’s blood on my hands, and if the rest of you want to live, you’ll have to get blood on yours too.” He knew that the captain had been close to the now-dead second officer Wang Yongbo, and to fire him up, he told him that it was Bao De who had killed Wang. So the captain agreed to throw in his lot with Liu Guiduo.

When night fell, Liu Guiduo got his men together and brought the captain and Cui Yong in as well. He wrote out the names of Bao De and three other Mongolians on a scrap of paper and passed it around for each of them to read.

Liu Guiduo then quietly slipped Cui Yong a squidknife and sent him down to the crew’s sleeping quarters to act as bait. He told the captain, who was also armed with a knife, to wait on deck. He did not entirely trust his latest recruit, so he told Huang Jinbo and Liu Chengjian to hide on deck and keep an eye on him.

Then Liu Guiduo went to find Bao De. He spun a story to him about how the captain had joined him and he [DQ: Liu] was planning to get him to kill Cui Yong, and for that, he needed to borrow Bao De’s squid knife. Bao De duly handed it over and then went down to the sleeping quarters to fetch Cui Yong up on deck so the captain could murder him. Cui Yong, holding his knife behind him, followed Bao De up on deck, where the captain was waiting, armed with his own knife. Bao De was taken by surprise. The captain and Cui Yong, one in front, one behind, stabbed him repeatedly. Bao De shouted down to his Mongolian compatriots, “Come up here!” but no one dared move.

At this point, Huang Jinbo and Liu Chengjian came out of hiding and joined the fray.

This was Cui Yong’s first murder, and he was elated. Smearing Bao De’s blood on his face, he shouted: “I’ve been blooded now!” 

Bao De was forced to tell his attackers the names of the Mongolian gang members, and then made to jump into the sea.

For several nights in a row after this, Zhao Mucheng only dared sleep for an hour at a time. He had actually been lying in his bunk when Bao De was killed.

ZMC: “I had no idea what was going on. I looked outside and it was dark already, though it wasn’t even four o’clock. Honestly, I was just scared someone was going to come in. Then a voice blared out―the boat had one of those big megaphone things for making announcements―and what I thought was the captain’s voice came over it, ‘Bao De, tell us who’s in the gang with you! Make it snappy, I know what’s been going on!’ He repeated this and then Liu Guiduo’s voice took over, ‘Whose side did you think Huang Jinbo was on, eh?’ What on earth was going on?! I had no clue that the captain had joined Liu Guiduo.”

DQ: Zhao Mucheng sat upright and stared hard, as if he were sitting in fog and trying to make something out in front of him.

After that, the Mongolian gang memberswereeliminated one by one. Qiu Ronghua and Dan Guoxi were hauled out of the four-berth cabin and the foredeck cabin, respectively, and forced to jump into the sea. Shuang Xi and Dai Fushun were taken in the twelve-berth dorm and then forced to jump as well. So was Bao Baocheng, the old seaman who once said, “What does it matter if we lose a man? It’ll be easy to explain away when we get home.”

ZMC: “I heard someone shout, ‘That’s Bao Baocheng and Shuang Xi gone! When did Shuang Xi jump?’ That told me they’d drowned.

“I don’t remember the exact details. You’d have to be pretty smart not to have a few blanks in your memory for what happened back then.

“A few minutes later, the megaphone shut off and I heard Liu Guiduo up on the deck. Then he came down and shouted into my dorm, ‘Dan Guoxi, come out here!’ Dan Guoxi went out.

“What happened outside I never saw—the doorway had a big quilt hanging in front of it ’cause we had AC and the weather was pretty hot. But I heard a gasp and a thud. After that, Qiu Ronghua was called out, and there was another gasp and that was him done for.

“The next ones called out were Xiang Lishan and the first officer. ‘Are you with Bao De?’ they were asked. ‘No.’ ‘OK, I can see the two of you are honest, you go back in.’ But they wanted to go and piss. Liu Guiduo gave them a mouthful of abuse, ‘You want to be the next to jump? You got a fucking death wish?’ ‘We just want to piss.’ ‘Well, fucking hurry up then!’ he yelled at them.

“They came back, and a little while later, Liu Chengjian came in too. He took my cell off me and told me, ‘Liu Guiduo’s asking for you. Go on up.’

“My head was in a whirl. I thought I must be next for the chop and I hung back as much as I could. But when I got to the captain’s cabin, there was Liu Guiduo sitting on the bed looking exhausted. I relaxed a bit and he told me, ‘Don’t be scared, it’s nothing. We’ll be in Japan in a couple of days and you’ve got nothing to worry about, you’ve got no blood on your hands. Anyone with no blood on their hands can just go back to China and that’ll be it. You can tell the company anything you like, we’ll be in Japan, it doesn’t matter what you say. We’ve killed men and we’re going on the run for as long as we can.’ Then he said, ‘Go to the galley and cook some noodles, the men who’ve been doing the business are hungry, they need something to eat.’”

DQ: What Zhao Mucheng did not understand was why Liu Guiduo had roped in Cui Yong and not him.

ZMC: “I really don’t know why. Maybe he already had enough men. There was one thing I thought was very strange. It was the day that Liu Guiduo made all the crew members ask their families for another 5,000 yuan. I asked my younger sister. She said Mom had lost her phone and had a new number. She gave it to me and told me to call. I looked at Liu Guiduo and he said, ‘Go on, do it. Tell your mom you’ll be back soon, she’s not to worry.’ I didn’t think he would force me, in fact maybe he knew that my dad had died nearly twenty years before and Mom was on her own. So I didn’t call Mom. I gave the phone back to him.

DQ: Every time Zhao Mucheng talked about Liu Guiduo, he sighed heavily. “Liu Guiduo was a shrewd operator. He was more . . . experienced than the rest of us.”

To his family back home in Heilongjiang province, Liu Guiduo (Young Two, they called him) was a good son, and clever. He regretted dropping out of school and admired people with an education. When he was fifteen, there was a severe drought in the village, and Liu Guiduo left home for the first time and got laboring jobs on construction sites and big farms. When he made up his mind to sign up as a seaman, his father took him to the county town on the tractor. The old man only ever smoked his own home-cured tobacco, but that time his son bought him two packets of cigarettes as a going-away present.

 

Someone Opens the Kingston Valve 

DQ: My next interview with Zhao Mucheng took place in late autumn. His village was bathed in bright sunshine and presented an intensely tranquil scene. There were few people about and only the occasional monotonous barking of a dog to be heard.

At four the morning after Cui Yong joined Liu Guiduo, the second engineer tried to scupper the boat and drown himself and everyone else. He was the next fatality.

ZMC: “On our journey back, there was absolutely nothing to see, only the ocean. Liu Guiduo made sure to avoid other ships. Just once, when we’d stopped to change the oil filter, we saw one in the distance. There was no flag or number on the side, and after about twenty minutes, it moved on. Pirates, we reckoned. But fishing boats didn’t carry money, so pirates weren’t interested in us. The high seas were different from the high road: if they’d wanted to chase us, we couldn’t have shaken them off.”

DQ: The evening that Bao De was killed, Zhao Mucheng went down to the galley to cook as instructed. He started to work out how many men were left. All of the Mongolian gang members were now dead, and out of thirty-three crew members, fifteen were left.

When the boat was still off Peru, there were always pinpricks of light from other ships around them as darkness fell. The lights were feeble, but still they nurtured a sense of security, albeit a false one. But now, there was nothing but pitch black to be seen out of the portholes.

ZMC: “When I’d cooked dinner, the crew ate and drank. They sat there for a while afterwards, then went to bed. That night, I was in the twelve-berth cabin on the upper deck and got Jiang Xiaolong’s berth. ‘You stay and sleep here,’ Jiang Xiaolong told me. ‘Don’t go down below.’

“I couldn’t get to sleep that night. When I woke up the next morning, I heard shouting. They were looking for Wang Yanlong, the second engineer, but they couldn’t find him. It was pandemonium. I lay there listening, scared that something else bad had happened.

“In fact, I could hear something was wrong with the boat. I found out that someone had opened the Kingston valve. Only Wang Yanlong knew where that was. Anyway, the water came rushing in and it was all hands to the pump. But when we’d pumped all the water out, the boat still wasn’t right. 

“Liu Guiduo told all of us to get any stuff that would float, like bits of timber and bunk frames, tie them together into rafts, and load the rafts up with any food we could find.

“If the Kingston valve was open, it meant the boat might go down. The Lurongyu 2682 had to put out a distress signal, but that would mean we’d all get found out.

“Anyway, Liu Guiduo and the captain went and repaired the telecoms equipment and sent out a distress call. They told us they’d sent it but they had no idea when anyone might turn up.”

 

A Pacific “Raft of the Medusa”

DQ: In the seas to the east of Japan, four more men were killed. Of the crew of thirty-three, only eleven were left.

ZMC: “We lashed and nailed planks together to make a raft. We put it in the water, and I started to get stuff into it. The first officer got into the raft. He grinned and beckoned to me: ‘Stop messing around. Get in!’ He said this a few times, but I said, ‘I haven’t finished, wait a minute.’ There were three others on the raft, Song Guochun, Gong Xuejun, and Ding Yumin, all of them wearing life vests. 

“Just then I heard a shout, I don’t know who from: ‘Hey, how come we’re floating away?’

“I turned to look. The cable was broken and the raft was already ten meters away. I grabbed a rope and threw it to them. But the first officer caught it and threw it back into the sea. ‘They’ve got knives!’ he shouted. ‘They’re still planning on killing more men. We’re not coming back!’

“Liu Guiduo was furious when he saw the raft was gone. ‘Motherfuckers! Motherfuckers! You come back!’ he yelled in a frenzy. But by now the raft was far in the distance and no bigger than your fist.

“Liu Guiduo sat on deck looking depressed.

“To our surprise, we didn’t sink, because we had nothing left in the stores so we didn’t take in much water. The trouble was that water had gotten into the cabin. We didn’t sink, but we couldn’t move either. We had to wait for help. When we’d sent out our distress signal, there had been fifteen, but now only eleven were left, so Liu Guiduo suggested we play innocent and throw the blame for the murders on the four who’d fled.

“Suddenly, the captain shouted: ‘Hide! Hide!’ He’d seen the raft was coming nearer. Someone had put down an umbrella anchor, which increased the pull of the current, and we were gaining on the raft.

“Just then the captain noticed that the men on the raft were cutting through the anchor cable with their knives. That was to slow us down and put some distance between us and the raft.

“Liu Guiduo called me down below and told me to get together the heavy squid hooks, the more the better. I got over a hundred of them. The four hadn’t cut all the way through the cable when the raft hit the ship’s bow.

“You have to admit, it was rotten luck for those four.

“‘Get ‘em!’ shouted the captain. ‘Kill ‘em!’ We threw down the sinkers and knocked three men off. Only Ding Yumin was left.

“Jiang Xiaolong grabbed a harpoon, jumped down onto the raft, and stabbed Ding. Ding fell into the water. Jiang was furious, he was cussing at Ding Yumin, he couldn’t believe that Ding had run away like that. They’d come on board together.

“The first officer, Gong Xuejun, and Ding Yumin were shouting and begging for mercy, but slowly they drifted farther off, the three of them grabbing on to each other in the water. They weren’t going to make it, for sure. Chinese-made life vests are useless, they get soaked and then in four or five hours, they sink. And the men were bleeding, and that would bring the sharks soon enough.

“That left the fourth, Song Guochun, floating quite near the ship. He was begging frantically for help, but Liu Guiduo said nothing and we didn’t dare move. Then Liu said, ‘Pull him in,’ and me and Huang Jinbo got him back on deck. He was bleeding from a head wound and I got a paper towel and wiped it for him.

“Just then, the captain went up to Liu Guiduo and said to him: ‘What are we going to do about Zhao Mucheng and Xiang Lishan? We’re gonna get rescued and those two haven’t gotten blood on their hands yet.’”

DQ: From this point on, Zhao Mucheng went very quiet, the way he had at the start of our interviews. He told his tale, but he gripped his fishing rod and blocked all my probing. ‘I don’t remember,’ was all he said if I tried to tease out the details. He didn’t seemed bothered, he was quite calm.

ZMC: “When he heard the captain, Xiang Lishan grabbed a squid knife and was about to stab Song Guochun, but Liu Guiduo stopped him. ‘No, you two just tie him up and throw him back.’

“There are some gaps in my memory after that. I took Song’s life vest off and tied his wrists, I remember that. I don’t remember if I tied his legs. In the trial, it was said that some of the men put sinkers in his pockets, and Huang Jinbo tied some together with fishing line and tied them around him, that’s for sure.

“Song Guochun was still crying: ‘Liu, you’re my bro, why are you ditching me, you don’t hate me that much, I won’t spill the beans when we get back!’ Where Song Guochun was standing, it was half a dozen meters to the stern, and it took me a full five minutes to push him back to the bit with no railings.

“I kept looking around at Liu Guiduo. I didn’t dare look Song Guochun in the eye, but I was wondering if Liu would give him another chance. When we were only a meter from the stern, I looked around again. Then I saw the sinkers tied to Song flying out and dropping into the water with a splash. I turned back, but the man was gone.”

DQ: Zhao Mucheng fell silent.

ZMC: “I must have pushed him, to send those sinkers flying, but I really wasn’t all that strong and honestly I can’t swear it was me that did it. The police told me that the sinkers fell at the same time as I pushed him.”

DQ: After Song Guochun had gone into the sea, the remaining eleven dispersed. Their SOS had been received, and all they could do was wait.

Typhoon Muifa was just then engulfing the Western Pacific. It took a week for the Chinese fishing authorities to reach them. Zhao Mucheng told me that, after the Chinese fishing authorities came on board, Captain Li Chengquan pulled him to one side and gave him a bit of paper on which he had written up the lie they had concocted: that once Bao De and his gang had committed their murders, they had made their escape on a raft, leaving eleven behind.

This was proven to be nonsense.

 

Back to the Dock on Shidao Island
 August 13, 2011: A Rainstorm

DQ: Zhao Mucheng was still very worried. It wasn’t so much whether the plot would be exposed; he just had no idea whether he would get back alive. He went on:

ZMC: “I thought there might be more killing before we arrived in port. When we were being towed back, Liu Guiduo and his cronies went through each of the cabins and turned up a notebook, Dan Guoxi’s, apparently, with the name of the man who’d murdered old Xia.

“I was worried, mostly ‘cause Liu Chengjian had said something like, ‘I just knew it.’ I thought he must mean, ‘I just knew that those two were gonna cause problems for us.’ I behaved as naturally as I could, but I hid a knife in case I needed it. The captain had found it on the deck, I saw him, and he told me, ‘Hide this knife, and do it right.’ So I did, I pushed it between some boards at the bottom of the ship. Afterward, I realized that Liu Chengjian hadn’t been talking about me after all.

“During the tow back to port, Huang Jinbo and Wang Peng spent all their time in a huddle, muttering away to themselves very quietly. They got pen and paper and scribbled things down, all behind the backs of the rest. Then they folded the bits of paper into paper airplanes and sent them flying out to sea. One plane landed at Liu Guiduo’s feet, and he picked it up and read it. ‘What do you two think you’re playing at?’ he yelled at them. ‘Have you gone crazy?’”

DQ: Zhao Mucheng fired up his electric scooter and gave me a lift into the county town. This part of town hadn’t changed much in recent years, apart from the new multistory houses that had been built. Zhao pointed out an old compound:

ZMC: “I left school after lower middle school, and I had a job delivering milk in there. I got 300 yuan a month for that. It was exhausting and not enough to live on either. I stopped after two months and learned how to repair motorbikes, but that didn’t earn me much either, so I went to Dalian.

“I had a good time in Dalian. I worked in the kitchen of a hotel where I had some friends, and we used to go out on the town when we were free. We’d meet up and go to bars with loud music or discos. Almost every evening we were out. I was spending all the money I was earning, not a cent left. But when I got to twenty-four, I figured that I’d had enough fun and seen enough, and I had to buckle down and save. Not that anything particular happened, I’d just gotten to that age.”

DQ: From where I was sitting behind Zhao Mucheng, I couldn’t see his expression.

ZMC: “We were towed back to Shidao Port in the middle of a rainstorm. There was a bus waiting for us, and an ambulance, and twenty or thirty people. The armed police tied our hands behind our backs and escorted us off one by one, I was the third or fourth. We got on the bus, but we hadn’t driven far when suddenly we were surrounded by police who’d been hiding somewhere until we were safely off the ship and on land. Then we were each of us put in a different police car and taken to the police station.

“Everyone was really wound up, but I felt fine. I was sure now that I wasn’t going to die.

“When I was interviewed, the police said to me, ‘Don’t be scared, just confess everything, and if you haven’t done anything, you’ll be home soon.’ I just said, ‘Good,’ and didn’t say anything else. You see, Liu Guiduo had made sure to get hold of the addresses of all our families, and he told us if any of us said what had really happened, he’d get someone to go after our folks.

“I guess it was just wishful thinking, but when I was being interrogated, I kept saying that it was Bao De and his gang who killed the men and then made off.

“My interrogator said to me, ‘What you’ve just told me, if I was saying it to you, would you believe it?’ Then his chief came in and asked why I hadn’t told the truth yet. I didn’t say anything and he said, ‘They’ve all told us that Xia Qiyong was the first to die. Isn’t that right? You’ll get off the lightest, why don’t you tell the truth?’ By that time, my statement had been taken and all I had to do was sign and put my thumbprint. I put my thumbprint on each page until the last, which I didn’t put my print on. The more I thought, the worse I felt about it. I tore the statement up and threw it in the trash.”

DQ: Huang Jinbo, then nineteen years old, was the first to confess. He counted on giving himself up to the authorities before the plot came out in the trial, but in the end, that didn't work.

 

Crime and Punishment

DQ: Zhao Mucheng felt, based on his limited legal knowledge, that he would probably be given a suspended death sentence or life imprisonment. His first legal team told him the most likely outcome was a fixed-term sentence. After changing lawyers, he was advised that he was looking at less than ten years, possibly eight. Zhao thought eight seemed pretty good. 

At the start of the trial, he was brought into court in handcuffs and shackles. He saw his mother in the public gallery. She was sobbing, which made him cry too. Every time he looked around, or tried to speak to his mother, the bailiff stopped him. “I was thinking how badly I’d let my family down. My mom had spent so much on me the last few years.”

Zhao Mucheng shared a cell with another seaman, suspected of killing eight people on an offshore container ship and stealing 100,000 yuan. His fellow inmate was not normal. When seated, his head twitched wildly and his hands shook uncontrollably. He liked to recite by heart a psychology book about ways to resolve inner turmoil. 

When Zhao Mucheng received the court’s verdict of “a fixed term of four years,” he “felt so happy” and indicated in court that he did not wish to appeal. 

The evening before his release, he pressed up against the steel bars and shouted to Huang Jinbo in the neighboring cell, “I’m getting out. You need anything? I’ll mail it to you.”

“S’alright, my folks send me everything. Look after yourself out there,” Huang Jinbo urged him. “Just forget about all this.”

Huang Jinbo was eventually sentenced to death, along with Liu Guiduo, Jiang Xiaolong, Liu Chengjian, and the captain, Li Chengquan.

All eleven survivors from the Lurongyu 2682 were found guilty. 

Liu Guiduo continued to deny all charges against him. His parents gave a tearful interview to a reporter after their son was sentenced to death. “If only everyone on board had been a good swimmer, things would have been OK.”

While in prison awaiting trial, Liu Guiduo shared a cell with a man facing a possible death sentence. Liu tried to encourage him to join his escape attempt, but the man informed against him the following day. After this, Liu was tied to his bed by all four limbs. He is still restrained in this way today, over four years later. 

ZMC: “Liu Guiduo is going to be executed in spring next year [DQ recorded this in 2016]. When I was still inside, I walked past Liu’s cell in my handcuffs and shackles. He saw me and lifted his hand. He couldn’t move very much, but he lifted his right hand and pointed at me. And then pulled his hand back toward his head, like this, like he was pulling a trigger. He was smiling, just like when he killed second officer Wang Yongbo.”

 

The Electric Port at Shidao

DQ: Zhao Mucheng was twenty-nine when he was released from prison. His girlfriend had left him and moved to Shanghai. 

ZMC: “I’d lost everything. I had to start over. I wouldn’t be as badly off as I am now if it hadn’t been for what happened. I didn’t go see her. Couldn’t find her and didn’t want to. Even if I had gone, it wouldn’t have changed anything. I don’t even know what she’s like anymore, and I definitely wouldn’t have enough to satisfy her now. She’s been in the big city and seen so much, and that makes it even more embarrassing. So I really don’t want to see her at all.” 

DQ: During my interviews with Zhao Mucheng, he was always keen to leave by five o’clock in the afternoon. 

ZMC: “I have to get home and cook for my mom. She works in a factory, it’s tough for her. When she gets home, she aches from head to foot and can’t get comfortable at all. But she’s fine at work.”

DQ: Zhao Mucheng’s mother does not allow him to go far from home these days, and he has to be back on time in the evenings. He has also promised her that he will never leave his hometown again. 

A few days later, I was at the Electric Port at Shidao, from which the Lurongyu 2682 had launched. 

All the locals agreed that squid fishing was a fool’s game and there wasn’t enough money in it, so you could only get crew from inland China. There were close to a hundred different types of fishing vessels berthed in the harbor. Some crew were loading and unloading goods and repairing fishing nets, others squatted by the trash cans playing poker. Truckload after truckload of shellfish left the port, and truck after truck dumped ice into the vessels about to launch. You could describe that stench-filled harbor as a chaotic war zone, but perhaps there was a kind of unassailable order to it.  

In a corner of the dock near the sea was a rust-stained vessel. Judging from the photographs, it looked to be the same type as the Lurongyu 2682. I jumped aboard. The ship had been abandoned for so long that even the mold on the trash strewn everywhere had long died off. It was forty-odd paces from the bow to the stern, then I headed round to the gangway ladder and climbed up to the captain’s cabin. Copies of the bimonthly women’s magazine Bosom Friend were scattered across the cabin floor. To the right of the control panel was a water cup, some liquid detergent, and a laminated sheet of instructions issued by the Korean Coast Guard. To the left, shockingly, was a heap of yellow ghost money. 

The rear cabin, used for crew, was absolutely empty. On one wall were scrawled the words “Almighty Father.” There was a picture of a woman’s naked body on the low ceiling. 

As I left, I noticed a message on the cabin door. “I’m off! Win and you’re a king—lose and you’re an outlaw. See ya!”

Most people live fairly rule-bound lives and maintain the belief that their fellow human beings on the whole do likewise. They are firmly convinced that it is a basic human condition to be ordinary, that on the whole, both good deeds and evil doings are of the banal kind. 

But on the Pacific, or rather, in that far-flung corner of the world, things did not play out that way. 

 

The translators would like to thank One Way Street Magazine in China and its editor Wu Qi for bringing the story to their attention. 

First published in Esquire China, 2016. © Du Qiang. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Nicky Harman and Emily Jones. All rights reserved.

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