IT is not the modern American Dream: four months at sea, ankle deep in sewage, rioting for food - all for the right to owe smuggling rackets years of indentured servitude in sweatshops and restaurants.
Yet rural Chinese immigrants are putting up several generations of earnings in pursuit of that dream, and crowding onto boats bound for the United States.
China blames Western asylum laws for luring its people overseas, and says it is powerless to stop the trade without international cooperation.
"Some of those people who have illegally entered other countries' territory have asked for so-called political asylum, and countries have even granted it," says Foreign Ministry spokesman Wu Jianmin. "This truly hampers our efforts to combat the smuggling."
The world might be blind to the traffic if ships had not begun dumping their human cargo just off popular New York City beaches, as the Golden Venture did June 6, or under the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, as the Pai Sheng did last month.
The 100,000 illegal Chinese arriving in the US every year vanish into Chinatowns throughout the country. There they take menial jobs until they can return the $30,000 in travel costs to "snake heads," leaders of the syndicates that smuggled them out.
The average Chinese peasant makes around $150 a year; most find only squalor in the US, but still make the journey, with dreams of sending dollars to family back home.
"A few years ago people sneaked into the US and the Immigration and Naturalization Service didn't send them back ..." says a professor at Beijing's People's University, who has conducted research in the coastal area where most trips begin. "Everybody knows those stories. People believe US immigration policy is more lenient."
With reason. In 1989, the Bush administration offered asylum to Chinese who claimed to have been persecuted for breaching China's strict population control policy that allows couples only one child. Most of the Chinese apprehended have requested asylum under the guidelines, and 80 percent have reportedly been allowed to stay.
HINA says US policy enacted under President Bush acts as a lure. The Hong Kong-based Ta Kung Pao, a pro-Beijing daily, said in a stinging editorial: "The United States has asked China to cooperate against alien smuggling, but conversely the US must first improve its immigration laws and should quickly and strictly repatriate illegal aliens."
China cannot solve the problem itself, officials say.
"It's pretty clear that to load 500 people into a ship and cross the ocean isn't just one guy putting on a show," says a Western diplomat in Beijing. "It's a large criminal organization, so it must be treated like a large crime activity, involving Interpol and conversations between different police organizations in the world."
He did not add what joint steps might be taken, saying only that talks are under way. But he was pessimistic about China's prospects of busting smuggling syndicates within its borders. China's economic reforms have produced an increasingly mobile population, and people can slip onto trawlers virtually unnoticed.
"They can't control the movement of people anywhere near the extent they could at one time," the diplomat says. "That leads to the increase in illegal immigration."
While the efficacy of China's public security is in doubt, its propaganda machine is starting to churn. Official news media reported June 11 that 26 people involved in smuggling had been sentenced in Fujian Province. Twelve smugglers received prison terms of up to five years, and 12 would-be emigrants face up to three years, according to the China News Service.
China insists it has stepped up coastal patrols and increased a document check at border points, as well as "educating local residents on the law."
But the Ministry of Public Security will not elaborate on steps being taken.
As long as the hope of successful passage exists, Chinese will continue packing onto boats. Entire villages often pool resources to send a son or daughter overseas in hopes that precious repatriated dollars will make the investment worthwhile.