Written by Seymour Topping.
China is developing Hainan Island, its tropical jewel in the South China Sea, into what its officials describe as an international resort to rival Hawaii.
At present, the island draws more than 30 million visitors each year, with perhaps 90 percent being Chinese seeking a refuge from the congestion and pollution of the mainland. Hainan is a popular Chinese resort for weddings and honeymooners. So far, the foreign influx is mainly from Russia and neighboring Asian countries. Still, the island has begun to attract more American tourists, who savor the golden surfing beaches and hot springs at luxury hotels set amid the lushness of forest greenery.
The island has a large golf complex and a free-trade zone with a large duty-free shopping complex. Plus, the Chinese are developing other facilities to accommodate medical tourism. Getting there is not as hard as you might think. Hainan Airlines offers flights from New York and other U.S. cities to resort centers near Haikou, the capital on the northern coast, and Sanya in the south. The high tourist season is from October to December, with fog rolling in during the winter months.
It was during the foggy season in 1950 that I had my own encounter with the island. I was then the sole foreign correspondent on Hainan covering the struggle for control of the island between the Nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong’s Liberation Army. Standing on the flat roof of the French Jesuit Mission in Haikou, I looked out across the narrow Hainan Strait to the mainland coast where Communist troops were massed making ready for an invasion of the island. Overhead, bombers of the Nationalist air force based on the island were whipping low to strike at the Communist positions. There was no telling when the Communist divisions would cross the strait and swarm into the city. Haikou itself was a dirty, sprawling home to 250,000 people, most of whom lived in old buildings made of mud and white plaster. Factories built by the Japanese during their occupation in World War II stood abandoned. Touring the city, I visited Catholic and Presbyterian missionaries. They administered a leprosarium where about 175 lepers lived. There were about 3,000 lepers on the island, evidently discarded by the mainland.
I flew out of Haikou on one of American military aviator Claire Chennault’s CAT (Civil Air Transport) airliners before the Communists overran the island in April. They stormed ashore from motorized junks at various parts of the island, operating in tandem with their guerrillas, who had for some time been in control of the isle’s green, mountainous spine. The Hainan invasion was the last major battle of the civil war, leaving only Taiwan under Nationalist control.
While Chinese officials put public emphasis on their current impressive transformation of Hainan Island, they make little reference to the fact that the island is a key military base and strategically vital in China’s struggle with the United States for influence in East Asia. A nuclear submarine base is on the island with its naval harbor large enough to accommodate aircraft carriers. Beijing has denied reports of the existence of cyber war and intelligence apparatus there as well to hack targets in the United States and elsewhere.
Hainan lies north of the island groups and waterways in the South China Sea whose sovereignty is in dispute between China and five neighboring nations. To reinforce its claims, China has put in place military structures on some of the adjacent rock formations jutting up from the sea and conducted air force maneuvers overhead. To defend the United States commitment to freedom of navigation through the vital waterways bordering the disputed lands, the Obama administration has sent warships close to the disputed lands. China’s aggressive persistence in its South China Sea claims, which risks conflict with the United States, is motivated to a large extent by its determination to control access and exploit the rich resources of the South China Sea.
The Chinese press reported on Aug. 9 that China intends to open a laboratory in Hainan Province, of which the island is part, in November that will focus on the use of the marine resources of the South China Sea. Beijing deems those resources essential to the future development of its economy. It sees no conflict with its serene aspirations for the Hainan tourist industry.