Haven for Chinese yearning to be free

The teen-age Chinese girl, wearing rolled-up trousers and a filthy dark blouse, crouches outside a powooden huts, and mud flats of the sprawling Mai Po marshes that divide China and this British crown territory.

The green-uniformed Gurkha soldiers who have just brought her in from early-morning patrol hardly glance at their captive. For them, the young girl with mud-caked bare feet and moist stringly hair is just part of an unsavory routine in preventing illegal immigrants from crossing the border. For her, too exhausted even to cry, it is the end of a dream.

It is a short-lived dream. As with more than 200 other illegal immigrants captured daily, she will be repatriated by police in unmarked vehicles at the Man Kam To bridge farther along the border. The bridge is the only road checkpoint between Communist China and Hong Kong.

The girl will probably spend six months at a re-education center somewhere in China. Then she will try again. And again. And again. "You will have to kill us to stop us," the illegals repeatedly tell the British.

"It's really an absurd situation," remarked a young British officer, who is part of the 8,000-man police and military force that guards the land and sea borders round the clock with helicopters, boats, jeeps, and foot patrols. "Some of them try six, seven, and even nine times to get across. It's tragic, for we have no option but to send them back."

Not unlike the 3 million illegal immigrants who often go to great lenghts each year to enter the United States, the majority of Chinese attempt their break marshes at Mai Po. Others try to penetrate the tight security net by hiding aboard local fishing boats or by swimming across the shark-infested waters at Mirs Bay. Many don't survive.

In the past, Hong Kong residents often helped the illegals when they came across. But today, anyone caught helping them faces serious punishment. In addition, the government is constantly reminding residents that more immigrants only means a greater erosion of life style.

The illegals, most of them in their teens and early 20s, regard Hong Kong as the land of golden opportunity. Last year, 89,241 Chinese illegally entered Hong Kong and were later sent back. This marks a staggering increase over the roughly 8,000 captured by security forces in 1978. In June, 13,000 were brought in, compared with barely 2,000 in January.

There are several reasons for this massive escalation in illegals. First, it has been partly sparked by the Chinese government's recent relaxation of travel restrictions. Most of the immigrants are from Guangdong Province, bordering Hong Kong. Many journey for up to 10 days on foot to reach the frontier. But according to one government official, there was recently a case of a young man who trekked for almost 30 days.

Second, there are fewer regular Chinese troops now on the frontier than in March, when many were transferred to the Vietnamese border in view of worsening Chinese-Vietnamese relations. "this has obviously removed a major deterrent," commented an officer of the Queen's Own Highlanders regiment at an observation post overlooking Man Kam To bridge. "The Chinese have been instrumental in turning back possibly 3 out of 5 persons trying to escape."

Gesturing toward a large, boxlike tower just across the border, he added: "We often cooperate with each other by pointing out IIs [illegal immigrants] hiding in the fields or bushes."

Third, with hundreds of thousands of alluent-looking Hong Kong residents visiting relatives in China during holidays, potential immigrants each year hear tales of full employment and "the good life."

While recently visiting Lo Wu railway station, where travelers from Hong Kong must change trains to enter China, this reporter watched as hundreds of passengers debarked lugging television sets, radios, tape recorders, electric fans, amplifiers, and even refrigerators.

"Many Chinese in Guangdong have TVs and can watch Hong Kong programs," a government official explained. "This naturally gives them an exaggerated taste for consumerism and a different style of life from their own drab existence. Many, particularly the young, then want to leave."

The Hong Kong government, which estimates that both legal and illegal Chinese immigration over the past two years topped 250,000, fears that population influxes will undermine the economic and social well-being of the territory. In 1979, it is reckoned, immigration and refugee arrivals swelled Hong Kong's 5 million population by 6 percent.

Theoretically, the 1898 Second Peking Convention, which leased the 365 -square-mile new territories to the colony for 99 years, stipulates that all physically and mentally healthy Chinese have the right to enter and leave Hong Kong.

Obscuring this clause as best they can, Hong Kong authorities permit an average of 150 Chinese to enter the territory legally each day. Forty-five more come through on transit visas, but many of these simply do not continue their journeys and slip unnoticed into Hong Kong's swarming masses.

To prevent illegal immigrants who have successfully infiltrated from going underground, the government considers all those who have reached Hong Kong's urban areas as home free. Many then apply for a three-month renewable permit. "This is designed to prevent illegals from falling into the hands of racketeers and blackmailers," an official explained.

At Mai Po, A Gurkha lieutenant told this reporter that roughly 80 percent of the illegals try to cross over between marsh flats and the Man Kam to bridge. "We got 62 of them last night," he said.

Across the marshes from the lieutenant's observation post, perched on a small hill, one can see the luxuriously green mountains of China. To the right lies a small fishing commune.

Several sampans cross over daily from the mainland fishing village and anchor in full view of the police. Under the watchful eye of a sergeant, the Chinese load worn tires into their barks for use as dockyard bumpers in China. Before they return in the evening, however, the Chinese fishermen make arrangements with enterprising Hong Kong merchants to buy consumer goods such as soft drinks, detergents, and cheaper Chinese cigarettes.

Glistening ahead of the observation post in the early morning light lies the expansive Pearl River estuary. Snow-white egrets slowly wing their way across the marshes as a distant marker bobs in the water. "That's the border," said the lieutenant. "One past that, they're illegal."

Most of the illegals make their break at night. Just before dusk they gather on the hills overlooking the marshes to survey the scene. Once darkness sets in they make their way individually or in small groups to the water's edge.

On the Hong Kong side, the security forces are waiting. Soldiers with binoculars and infrared scanning devices for use at night probe the reeds and bushes for movement. When one is spotted, instructions are radioed to ground patrols below.

"They use incredibly ingenious methods to get across the water," a government official noted. "They swim across in tire tubes, nets filled with ping-pong balls, basketball bladders, or wooden boards with paddles to help scoot across the mud. Some of them even swim under water, breathing through reeds, to escape detection."

The British never use guns, only long sticks, to keep order when the illegals are captured. Rarely do the illegals fight back. "They are usually too exhausted," an Army officer noted.

As with the sea crossing, the marshlands also have their hazards. "Earlier this week," a police sergeant at Mao Po explained, "we fished out a dead 24 -year-old girl. A helicopter had spotted her in the marshes and tried to pick her up. But in her panic she got stuck in the mud, which acts like quicksand, and drowned. We get two or three such cases every week in this particular area."

Until recently it was estimated that for every immigrant captured, two got through. Now, in an attempt to stem the tide, the British have constructed a 14 -foot-high, lighted wire fence that stretches along the entire land area. The fence does not strictly follow the boundary line, but occasionally juts inland.

"Sine the fence went up we have caught roughly 9 out of 10," said the officer of the Queen's Own Highlanders. "But it is amazing how quickly some of them still get across. I've seen some chaps slip over in 40 seconds flat." Along the fence, bits of clothing hang from the wire, indicating escape attempts.

At night, guards will often switch off certain sections of light. The illegals, thinking something is wrong, then converge near the blackened area -- only to be nabbed by waiting security men when the lights are suddenly flicked on.

Until early July, many illegals were able simply to walk through the 200-odd gates that permit local farmers to reach their lands on the other side. After that, the government decided to lock the gates between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m.

Next: Hong Kong's grandiose housing experiment.

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