THOUSANDS of desperate job-seekers and heady gold-diggers are flooding China's fast-growing coastal provinces and then moving on to Hong Kong and beyond.
Their unrealistic hopes of instant wealth often make these migrants the unlikely victims of Chinese gangsters running a booming smuggling network to the British colony, Taiwan, Southeast Asia, and Western countries such as the United States and Canada, police officials here say.
The plight of more than 500 Chinese recently caught trying to sail illegally to Hawaii has underscored the growing problem now facing Western and Asian countries.
The migrants, who paid up to $20,000 each in what is considered one of the largest illegal immigrant smuggling schemes involving Chinese nationals, are now detained at a US military base in the Marshall Islands.
Hong Kong has refused to accept the immigrants, most of whom face the prospect of being returned to the Chinese mainland. Hong Kong officials were angered by the US request to accept the immigrants, pointing to the colony's large population of Vietnamese boat people whose repatriation the US blocked for years.
Elsewhere in Asia, 128 Chinese crammed into the hold of a cargo ship intercepted by a Singapore patrol boat were recently returned to China from the Southeast Asian city-state, accompanied by mainland officials.
The 115 men and 13 women had paid as much as $30,000 each to be smuggled to New York on a ship that had picked them up in southern Taiwan. The illegal immigrants were flown back to their native Fujian Province, which lies across the Formosa Strait from Taiwan.
Another 180 illegal Chinese immigrants were detained when they arrived in San Francisco Jan. 11.
"The sudden increase of illegal immigrants is linked to people coming to the coast in search of work or business," says a police spokesman in Hong Kong where authorities are arresting more than 3,000 illegal immigrants a month, three times more than last year.
Despite continuing restrictions on population movement that traditionally have kept Chinese tied to their locality, economic reforms and widening disparities between wealthy coastal provinces and poorer inland areas are fueling the movement of people.
Many are drawn to the coastal cities not for a lack of work but because they think life will be better. In provinces such as Guangdong and Fujian, many farmers and factory workers who have personal connections can manage to find jobs and accumulate some savings.
But thousands of others, driven to the coast by joblessness or hard times in their native provinces, fail to find the good life. According to Chinese press reports, thousands of illegal settlers have gathered around the train station in Guangzhou, Guangdong's bustling provincial capital. "Economic reforms have improved life for many Chinese although the reforms have yet to touch the migrants moving around the countryside, searching for the better life they hear about," a Western diplomat says.
Police officials in Hong Kong say the jobless migrants are persuaded to try their luck in the colony, where the Chinese arrive aboard freight trains or are smuggled in by boat for $50 to $250.
Last week, Hong Kong police arrested six handicapped illegal immigrants from Hunan Province found in the hold of a boat from Shenzhen. Each had paid $50 to smugglers.
BETTER-HEELED Chinese immigrants willing to take the risk of being smuggled to the West are often recruited in their home villages, principally in Fujian Province. They are organized by mainland representatives of organized-crime gangs in Hong Kong who arrange the pickup and passage.
Indeed, the exploitation of migrants is another indication of the growing clout of Chinese organized-crime gangs known as triads, now spreading their influence into a more open southern China and overseas. Based in Hong Kong, Taipei, Bangkok, and Singapore, the groups have transported Chinese immigrants to Australia and Japan and are believed to have contacts with the Yakuza underworld.
Amid growing concern about the Chinese gangs, both Canada and the US have stepped up immigration scrutiny to block the triads from moving their bases from Hong Kong before China takes control of the British colony in 1997.
Hong Kong police say one such gang was believed to have been involved in the attempt to smuggle the Chinese apprehended trying to reach Hawaii.
The incident has created a diplomatic dilemma with no country yet willing to take the refugees. Hong Kong, which is only beginning to make progress in returning economic refugees from Vietnam, refused to accept the immigrants, claiming there were no assurances that China would take them back.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has been called in to screen the Chinese for legitimate asylum seekers but few are expected to qualify.
Western observers predict the problem of Chinese emigration could become stickier if the outflow continues at its current pace.
"The whole problem is very complex because it's unclear who will take responsibility," a Western diplomat says.