When I told Liu Zongning that 4 years ago I had cycled the length of Great Britain. 1,000 miles from Lands’ End to John O’Groats he was friendly enough, but unimpressed. After all, he was heading home to Baoji, in Shaanxi province, having covered 31,000 miles around China including parts of Tibet and Xinjiang.
I did my ‘long march’ (there was some pushing in the Grampians), unaccompanied over 12 days, carrying just a backpack on the bike rack. He remained unimpressed.
He’d done the 31,000 miles unaccompanied, over 1 year and 10 months, visited 19 cities, carrying several bags and a large flag.
The flag was why last week I’d pulled over on a minor road 50 miles north of Beijing upon spotting him.
My Chinese language skills stretch to the words for hello and pyjamas, only one of which was useful on this occasion. However, via much pointing, and an interpreter, I discovered that 41-year-old Liu had made it his mission to remind the 1.4 billion Chinese that the islands in the East China Sea, which the Chinese call the Diaoyu, are Chinese territory.
Even though I doubt he met anyone who disagreed with him, he felt the need to express this in his 31,000 mile roundabout way because the Japanese take a different view, call the islands the Senkaku, and claim them as their own.
Hence Liu’s flag designed to energise the Chinese public. At the top were the words ‘China Dream’, and underneath that ‘The Diaoyu Islands Belong to China’.
The 8 uninhabited ‘islands’ and rocks which make up the Diaoyu/Senkaku are controlled by Japan and are close to important shipping lanes, fishing grounds, and potential oil and gas reserves. They are east of the Chinese mainland, north east of Taiwan (which also claims them) and south west of Japan’s southern-most prefecture – Okinawa.
Beijing says the islands have been theirs for centuries pointing out that they were administered by the province of Taiwan which of course it still claims is part of China. Japan says that in 1895, having established they were uninhabited, it incorporated them into Japanese territory. After WW2 Japan renounced its claim, but the islands were returned to them in 1971 having been in ‘trusteeship’ to the USA.
But that was then, this is now, and now China is rising and views the East China Sea as its backyard.
The islands are a flashpoint. Three years ago China announced an ‘air identification zone’ requiring all aircraft to let Beijing know in advance if they were flying over the area. This has been ignored by Japan and the USA, but at some point in the future, it is one of several disputes which can be heated up at a time of either sides choosing.
Two days before I bumped into Liu 4 Chinese coastguard ships approached the islands in what the Japanese said was the 30th ‘incursion’ this year.
I didn’t ask him if he approved – but I can guess the answer. As we went our separate ways he pointed his bike south west towards Shaanxi. Only another 700 miles to go. Like China, he takes the long view.