A man working as a cook in Hebei province has been rescued by the Japanese coastguard after he tried to fly to the disputed Diaoyu islands in a hot air balloon and crashed into the sea about 20 kilometres short of his destination.
The man, identified as 35-year-old Xu Shuaijun by the Japanese coastguard, said he wanted to land on the islands in the East China Sea that are at the centre of a bitter row between the two countries.
The Japanese coastguard dispatched a helicopter in search of Xu after receiving a missing-person report from the Taiwanese rescue authorities on Wednesday. It found the half-deflated balloon and Xu about half an hour later.
Xu had issued a radio distress signal before his balloon went down.
He was picked up in international waters 22 kilometres south of the Diaoyus.
The Japanese coastguard later handed the man over to a Chinese ship patrolling to the west of the islands.
Xu left a message on his microblog yesterday saying he had returned safely to Fuqing in Fujian province, from where he had set off.
"I have returned safely. Thank you for your concerns," he said.
Xu took off from Fuqing at 7am on Wednesday and crashed about six hours later because of a mechanical failure, the Japanese Asahi newspaper said.
Xu, a licensed balloon pilot, was the first Chinese person to fly across the Bohai Bay in a hot-air balloon.
He accomplished the flight after only two years of practice, the China Sports Daily reported in July last year. The Bohai Bay flight was considered to be a challenge for even very experienced pilots, it said.
Xu said on his microblog in late September that he planned to go to the disputed islands by balloon and attached a chart of his planned 360-kilometre flight.
"Fly to the Diaoyu islands and be a Chinese with attitude," he wrote.
Dozens of internet users have expressed admiration for Xu's courage, but a few people also asked why he was rescued by the Japanese instead of his own countrymen.
Tension over the Diaoyu islands, which are called the Senkakus in Japan, escalated in November after Beijing announced an air-defence identification zone covering a large swathe of the East China Sea.
The balloon came down in an area outside China's air zone.
A foreign ministry spokesman in Beijing said the mainland coastguard had not attempted to rescue Xu because he was just a hot air balloon enthusiast.
He declined to give further details.
Professor Lian Degui, of the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, said it was normal for the Taiwanese authorities to inform the better-resourced Japanese coastguard if there was a problem in the area.
"The Japanese coastguard has more vessels and patrols around that area," Lian said.
The Taiwanese authorities should have informed their mainland counterpart if there were Chinese vessels in the area, he said.
Xu was born in Tangshan in Hebei in 1980, the China News Service reported two years ago. A news story on ballooning first sparked the high-school graduate's interest in the sport in 2007, the article said.
Xu, who worked as an internet administrator at a hotel earning less than 3,000 yuan (HK$3,800) a month, said he had saved hard so he could afford to pursue his passion for the sport.
Additional reporting by Teddy Ng