The Perils of Illegal Flight From China

Desperate to escape poverty and political restrictions, many Chinese follow the lure of emigrant smugglers. If they reach the US, they may become indentured by Chinatown gangs; if caught, the penalties back home can be severe.

LAST August, Mo Xi epitomized the reformed illegal immigrant.

As reported by the official New China News Agency, Mr. Mo returned to China with trepidation after being apprehended on a boat smuggling 200 Chinese illegally to the Marshall Islands. But his anxiety quickly eased when village officials gently reprimanded him and then found him a job in a foreign-owned shoe factory, earning more than the average worker here.

But Mo, a gangly young man in blue jeans and sneakers, says he was never interviewed for the report, and says it was false. Since his deportation back to this dirt-street village a few miles from the rugged Fujian Province seacoast, a place where thousands of illegal Chinese immigrants have left for the United States, his life, he says, is more difficult than ever.

Upon arriving here, Mo was detained by police until his parents, migrant workers in another province, paid a $1,000 fine. With his family deeply in debt, the young man is unemployed and under regular surveillance by a network of Communist Party officials established to prevent further illegal flights.

Village leaders in Dongtian, from which eight illegal immigrants, including a woman, fled in the last year, must report directly to a special party supervisory committee.

``The fine is a heavy burden on my family,'' a disappointed but unrepentant Mo says. ``If I had succeeded, I could have made big money.''

Fujian: point of departure

Despite a crackdown on illegal immigrants by local authorities and a slowdown in human smuggling since last year, many Chinese remain undeterred in their quest to reach the US.

Only a few months ago, China was mounting pressure on smugglers in Fujian Province, the center for illegal immigration, and US officials thought China had staunched the flood of Chinese, including many poor hoping for a better life, to American shores. More than 3,000 people were caught trying to sneak into the US last year alone.

But in April, a freighter unloaded 110 residents from Fujian off the coast of Virginia, raising new concerns in the US that more ships laden with Chinese immigrants were on their way.

Most of the people were held in a house in Maryland until their relatives in the US paid a ransom of more than $30,000 each to cover the fees of passage.

In addition to the lure of promised instant wealth once they reach the US, many of the refugees say that vigorous enforcement of restrictions on the number of children a family may have is another motivation to flee.

New arrivals in the US are then shepherded by criminal Chinatown gangs into menial jobs and, under threat, are ordered to start repaying the huge debt they contracted to get to the US.

In another apparent smuggling attempt last month, the US Coast Guard boarded and seized a trawler carrying more than 100 Chinese off Mexico's Pacific coast.

``Fujian has unfolded a campaign against [smugglers] and illegal immigrants, but the task against illegal migration remains arduous,'' said Mao Zhangcheng, a public security official in the Province, as quoted recently in the Hong Kong press.

As China has eased its residency registration rules, which in the past have tied each Chinese to a particular town or locality, and loosened population controls, millions of Chinese have migrated in recent years.

Thousands of peasants in Fujian and other provinces are ready to indenture themselves to racketeers offering to smuggle them to Europe or the US for up to $30,000 per head.

According to a parliamentary speech in March by a Chinese political official, 650,000 Chinese have emigrated illegally in recent years.

Wu Haode, an official with the Public Interest Party, one of China's so-called ``democratic parties,'' said 200,000 people have settled illegally in Asia, 200,000 in the US, 150,000 in Russia, and 100,000 in Europe.

`Only way to escape'

``Few people run away from rich villages. Illegal immigrants see smuggling as the only way to escape poverty,'' an official in Dongtian says. ``We are too poor here, the price of grain is too low, and we don't have industries.''

In Fujian, where most illegal immigrants hail from a four-county area around the provincial capital, Fuzhou, public security officials have successfully broken up more than 80 smuggling attempts involving almost 1,500 people in 1993, the official Fujian Daily reported. And 2,300 illegal immigrants have been repatriated to the province during the past two years.

More than 290 smugglers, who are known as snakeheads and are a front for criminal gangs, were arrested, the newspaper reported recently. Prodded by the US, which sent a delegation to Fujian in January, and its own embarrassment at hundreds of its citizens fleeing overseas, the Chinese government said it has toughened up penalties by sentencing snakeheads to prison for one to five years and sending others to labor reform camps.

Still, policing the problem, especially in a province whose rugged coastline is a nightmare to patrol, remains difficult. Fujian has a flourishing variety of criminal businesses, which include arms smuggling, prostitution, and drug-running. The Chinese press admits that some provincial officials are protecting smugglers because they are profiteering from the human-cargo business.

Mo's flight

Mo Xi, the repatriated illegal refugee, said he decided to risk the trip to the US after getting fed up with his job and low pay at a Taiwanese-owned shoe factory. ``The Taiwanese manager never cared about the hardships of mainland workers. Every day workers had to start at 8 a.m. and work extra hours, sometimes up to midnight or 2 or 3 a.m.,'' Mo says. ``He discriminated against the mainland workers and sometimes resorted to physical violence.''

He quit in August 1992 and was contacted four months later by a smuggler who asked if he wanted ``to go overseas to make big money.''

If successful, Mo would have to pay $20,000. He went to neighboring Guangdong Province where he and about 100 other people were sheltered in a hospital for 15 days. One night in early January 1993, they were loaded into covered trucks and taken to a nearby port where they boarded a cargo ship.

The Honduran-registered tanker, with its cargo of 200 illegal refugees, was at sea for 40 days. ``Twice each day, we were allowed to come to the deck for a half-hour for fresh air. We got two meals of porridge a day. The toilet was the bottom of the ship,'' Mo recalls. ``Life on the ship was hell. As soon as I boarded, I regretted it.''

Dongtian officials say the ship, one of three vessels carrying illegal immigrants, would have made it to the Marshall Islands but for a disagreement between the smugglers and the crew over pay. The vessel was detected after the crew forced the ship to be anchored at sea. Taken ashore for 20 days, Mo and the other refugees were sent back to China by air.

``Of course, some people said we got what we deserved. On the other hand, some sympathized,'' Mo recalls. ``But in general, most people don't care. They are too busy just trying to get by.''

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