On a disputed South China Sea island, Beijing unveils a high-tech cinema


The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Stethem (DDG 63) in waters east of the Korean Peninsula. (U.S. Navy/MC Third Class Kurtis A. Hatcher via European Pressphoto Agency)

Over 200 Chinese moviegoers attended a screening on Yongxing Island in the South China Sea on Saturday, according to the state-run Xinhua news agency.

The cinema is operated by Hainan Film Company and comes with up-to-date technology, the agency reported, including both 4K resolution and a 3-D perforated screen. The new movie theater has received widespread attention in Beijing’s state-run media — with Xinhua describing it as “China’s southernmost cinema.”

But its opening also plays a more controversial role in one of Asia’s most fraught territorial disputes.

Yongxing Island, known internationally as Woody Island, is the largest of the Paracel Islands. These islands are in a part of the South China Sea claimed simultaneously by China, Vietnam and Taiwan — part of a broader set of geopolitical disputes in the sea that also involve many Southeast Asian nations. China has long claimed much of the islands, reefs and atolls in this sea, pointing toward a historical claim known as the “nine-dash line.”

Disputes over the geographically useful region have long been a recurring theme of diplomacy. Last year, an international court in The Hague rejected most of China’s claims in the region. The United States has challenged China’s sovereignty in the area and has sailed Navy destroyers through the contested waters as recently as early July.

Beijing has dismissed international condemnation and instead worked to build up its presence on the tiny and often isolated islands it claims in the South China Sea. Many of these moves serve a military purpose: Last year, China was reported to have moved advanced surface-to-air missiles to Woody Island.

But Beijing has also made clear efforts to create a livable city for residents on these islands. In 2012, China set up a prefecture-level city named Sansha on Woody Island, soon unveiling structures such as a school and a hospital and even setting up a 4G mobile signal network. Xinhua reports that the city “also has a stadium and has organized various cultural activities to enrich the lives of residents.”

The greater purpose of these civilian-minded infrastructure installations may still be military — last year, a Chinese military newspaper reported that three-quarters of residents were military personnel who need something to do in their downtime. (The total number of residents is thought to be up to 2,000.)

There has also been talk of turning the islands into a patriotic tourist destination or even an offshore banking hub.

Gu Xiaojing, general manager of Hainan Media Group, told Xinhua that there will be “at least one film” screened every day, so that “residents and soldiers on Yongxing Island can enjoy films simultaneously with moviegoers across the country.” The plan is to screen blockbusters, and local authorities have also purchased mobile projection units that can be taken to other islands held by China in the area.

The movie screened on Saturday was titled “The Eternity of Jiao Yulu,” Xinhua reported. It is a documentary about the life of a Chinese Communist Party politician who is said to have worked hard and honestly before his death in the 1960s and is now held up as a hero in state-sanctioned history, though critics say the reality of Jiao’s life is not clear.

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