Feeding the Billions

for Scientific American

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In January 2007 Nguyên Phú was prepping his small boat for what appeared to be just another day of fishing for octopus off the Vietnamese coast. Soon after he headed out to sea, several Chinese boats appeared on the horizon. Phú thought momentarily about fleeing but knew he would not get far. When the gunships sidled up to his boat, he and his crew put up no resistance. “We don’t mess with the Chinese,” he says. “We just go into this position”—he crouches down with his hands above his head—“and we pray to God that we can suffer this.”

He claims Chinese soldiers took him and his crew to a jail on a nearby island and confiscated his boat. Phú spent more than a month in a cramped cell and received daily beatings, he and his crew say. Then he was let go; no trial, no judge, no reason given. The military had caught him and released him, just like a fish.