Members of a garrison on a small island in the South China Sea are determined to conquer nature and make the reef their home. Zhang Yangfei reports from Sansha, Hainan.
Every member of the People's Liberation Army Navy deployed on Zhongjian Island in the Xisha Islands in the South China Sea is asked to plant a tree on the day they arrive.
The trees symbolize the new recruits taking root on the motherland, which they will safeguard unswervingly while contributing to the development of the island, which lies off the coast of Hainan province.
Planting a tree is no big deal, but making sure it flourishes can be quite a headache for the sailors of the Zhongjian garrison because the process requires more than just daily watering.
When combined with the coral reef on which it is situated, Zhongjian Island covers 1.2 square kilometers, but the sailors said the area of land above sea level is no larger than two soccer pitches.
Formed from coral sand and shell debris, the island is basically an entire white sandy beach that is so frequently battered by cyclones and waves that the local fishermen refer to it as "The Island of Winds" or "Xisha's Gobi Desert".
It is in this environment that the sailors of the garrison have embarked on afforestation efforts to make the island more habitable. They have been doing so ever since the first batch of seven sailors from the South China Sea Fleet settled on the island.
Qiu Hua, leader of the garrison's communication squad, has spent the most time in the Xisha Islands. After a period on Shanhu Island, he arrived at Zhongjian in 2006, and his first sight of the island still haunts him.
"My heart sank when the ship entered the port. There were so few people and the land was desolate and white. I thought 'Oh my! How come this place is like this?'" he recalled.