Chinese brave dangerous travel for US ‘freedom’

Photo of author

By Creative Media News

  • Chinese nationals face perilous US journey
  • Middle class flees China’s political control
  • Migrants struggle with personal sacrifices

Last year, Li Xiaosan, a Chinese businessman, and his adolescent son travelled 5,000 kilometres (3,107 miles) through Central America to reach the United States.

In Colombia, they were robbed at gunpoint and lost nearly all of their belongings. They journeyed through hazardous jungles and swamps in Panama before embarking on a dangerous 12-hour sea ride to Mexico.

During Chinese New Year, they video-chatted with family members back in China, and Li’s kid burst into tears. Li informed him, “Freedom is not free.”

Li and his son were among more than 37,000 Chinese nationals arrested for illegally crossing the US southern border in 2023, making Chinese people the most significant group outside of the Americas to undertake the treacherous voyage. Many people, including Li, are middle class.

Everything about the country’s politics and economy was dark.”  “What’s the meaning of living there without any hope?

Li’s life in China initially felt like a “Chinese dream” come true. The 44-year-old grew up in a rural town in central China’s Henan province, attended college, and built a leather product trade company. He previously owned many apartments and sent his two sons to international schools in Thailand.

However, when the COVID-19 epidemic struck, Li’s luxurious existence was turned upside down. Orders from international clients dwindled, and his business failed. Li returned to his homeland in Henan but quickly realized that due to China’s severe lockdown laws, he couldn’t even leave his residential compound to acquire the needed medications.

Being outspoken had also gotten Li into trouble. He had criticized the government online for over a decade and had been investigated twice by local authorities. The last interrogation in 2022 lasted many hours. For Li, this was the final straw.

“My life in China was significantly better than in America. I don’t have anything in America. But I want to be able to speak freely,” Li remarked. “I want to say whatever I want and don’t have to worry about the police knocking on my door.”

Last February, Li and his son travelled to Texas, a US state. US border authorities detained them for five days before they were freed and moved to their eventual destination, New York, where they currently reside.

‘Voting with Feet’

Many middle-class Chinese who travel to the United States, like Li, are college-educated, have a well-established career or business in China, and understand how to use a VPN to bypass official censorship and access unrestricted internet.

They grew up during a rapid economic boom in China and increased global connectivity. However, they feel increasingly suffocated by the country’s stagnant economy and the government’s tightening political grip. Many people choose the United States because it is an economic powerhouse with political freedom.

“I have known for a long time that our system has huge issues, but the economy used to be good and covered up many problems,” said 40-year-old Vincent Wang of China, who is now in Mexico awaiting his asylum appointment to enter the United States.

Wang used to own a hotel in Dali, a picturesque mountain hamlet in China’s southwest that was popular with young domestic tourists. Before the pandemic, his hotel was frequently occupied, generating an average monthly profit of $4,000. However, commerce collapsed, and even after Beijing ultimately lifted its rigorous zero-COVID policy, the boom was brief, according to Wang.

“People don’t have much money anymore. “They’re not spending anymore,” he explained.

Since China dropped its zero-COVID policy, its much-anticipated economic recovery has stalled. China’s economy expanded by 5.2 per cent in 2023, meeting the official target. Still, concerns about sluggish growth persisted due to structural issues such as a property market crisis and record-high debt. At the same time, China’s growing control over many aspects of life, from prohibitions on online speech to media censorship, has fueled anger among specific individuals.

Wang claims that his current status caused a “political depression” and that he could no longer see a future for himself in China. “I’ve lived halfway through my life. “In the second half, I want to be more free,” he stated.

Last year, Wang began collecting information about the Central America route on Telegram, a messaging service where many Chinese migrants share their journey stories.

Earlier this year, he journeyed to Ecuador before heading to the United States.

Ecuador, which until recently allowed Chinese people to travel without a visa, has served as a gateway to the United States for Chinese migrants. In 2023, Ecuador recorded over 24,000 Chinese nationals entering the country, a twofold increase over the previous five-year average. Almost 80% of Chinese professionals have a high or intermediate skill level. According to a recent analysis by the Niskanen Center, a Washington, DC-based think tank, middle-class young Chinese men will most likely have the financial resources and physical strength to complete the migratory path to the United States through Ecuador.

Ecuador halted visa-free entry into the nation for Chinese citizens on July 1 due to an uptick in irregular migration. Still, social media buzz shows it will do little to prevent the Chinese from moving to the United States via Central America. Chinese migrants’ Telegram messages indicate that some intend to begin their trek further south in Bolivia, where Chinese passport holders can obtain a visa on arrival. Other Chinese migrants have taken more discrete and convenient means, such as flying into Mexico with a valid Japanese multiple-entry visa, which gives visa exemption in Mexico.

Wang and Li, members of China’s middle class, have few possibilities for migrating to the United States. While more rich Chinese choose investor visas, individuals with less money need help to secure a US visa. Last year, the denial rate for Chinese citizens applying for US tourist and business visas was 27%, higher than before the pandemic. Due to a massive backlog of applications, the wait period for US visa appointments in China has now exceeded two months. One of the reasons Li and Wang set out on the perilous journey through the Americas was the difficulty in acquiring a tourist visa to the United States.

Personal sacrifices

For middle-aged, middle-class migrants, leaving China requires significant personal sacrifice. Due to safety concerns, Li left his wife and younger son behind. He also had to say goodbye to his father, who was terminally ill with cancer. “My father was already quite weak. “I knew if I left China, I’d never see him again,” Li remarked, her voice cracking. His father died a few months after I came to the United States.

Once in the United States, undocumented Chinese migrants frequently struggle to make ends meet. Last June, the Chinese embassy in Los Angeles published a letter stating that many undocumented Chinese migrants who had just arrived in the United States preferred to return to China due to a lack of legal status and sufficient money. “China opposes and strictly prohibits all forms of illegal migration,” China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning stated in April.

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Once in New York City, Li worked various odd jobs, including construction worker, busboy at a Chinese restaurant, and running a street stall selling Chinese-made accessories. “It was tough,” he said.

After saving up some money, Li and his business partner, another Chinese migrant he met in the Panamanian forests, started a translation company earlier this year. Now Li’s only hope is to reunite with his wife and younger son, who may travel to the United States if given political asylum.

Wang, the former guesthouse owner, is awaiting his digital appointment via CBP One, a US Customs and Border Protection software designed to process asylum claims.

As he waits in Mexico City, he expresses his willingness to live frugally and work in challenging occupations if granted asylum.

“To be honest, I know the US is not a paradise, but I know where hell is,” according to him. “I had to get out of there.”

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