About 50 years ago, something strange happened in many villages in Fujian, a southeast coastal province of China. All young and middle-aged males disappeared, leaving their wives and children behind. People called these villages guafu cun, or widow villages. Nationalist troops had drafted the men, and taken them across to Taiwan on the eve of the Communist takeover.
In the past decade in the rural counties of Fujian, new widow-villages have emerged. Young men have left their wives and children in droves, borrowing to pay from $30,000 to $50,000 or more to what locals call "snake heads," illegal immigration organizers. Toudu xifang - the Chinese term for sneaking across to the West - is believed to be the route to plentiful money, where all dreams come true without effort.
For the past decade, waves of residents from these villages in Fujian province entered the United States and Europe illegally via air, land, and sea. Some smuggling operations take five to six months, involving four or five different countries. During a recent interview with reporters in the US, one illegal immigrant said he'd been transported from China to the Netherlands via Russia. Then, the snake head put him on a flight to Chicago where he was caught.
The fate of these illegal immigrants again came under international scrutiny this week when customs officers in Dover, England, found the bodies of 54 men and four women behind pallets of tomatoes stacked at the rear doors of a long truck.
In January, three Chinese were found dead on a cargo ship in Seattle, with 15 other survivors crammed into 40-foot canvass-covered metal boxes. They went through the two-week voyage on bottled water, rotting vegetables, and crackers.
A Chinese translator working for a local court in New York recently noted that most of the Chinese illegal immigrants tell US immigration officers that they were trying to escape China's harsh family-planning policies or political persecutions. But after these court interviews, some of the immigrants confided to her that smugglers had coached them what to say. Because China has a bad reputation on human rights, these stories can be very plausible.
Political persecutions are prevalent in China, but most victims are intellectuals, religious figures, and labor-union activists whose views are considered a threat to the Chinese government. China's one-child policy has resulted in many incidents where rural women are forced to be sterilized.
But in the more affluent coastal regions, government fines for having more than one child have less effect than in other, poorer areas. It's common knowledge that in these affluent areas - where it is common to see families with two or three children - the policy has been enforced with great leniency or outright indifference.
Blaming political persecution for the increased smuggling is not completely true, and in addition many of those leaving China for the West are unaffected by the policies anyway.
Economically, residents of villages in Fujian are by no means poor by Chinese standards. During the past two decades, farmers have taken advantage of the Communist Party's liberal economic policies - and proximity to ports - and have made the region one of the richest in the country. Reporters who have visited there tell stories of big houses with modern appliances.
What, then, is the impetus that drives these young men to use up their savings and borrow huge sums of money, and then brave the danger and uncertainty of a smuggling trip from China across the globe?
It is a psychological obsession, like that of a gambler. In the widow villages in Fujian, many people believe that if a person gets the opportunity to work hard for three to five years in western countries like the US, the high salary he earns can support him and his family for many years upon his return. Therefore, the risks are worth taking.
Most importantly, going to the West is a source of great pride and a status symbol. When those families receive money from the West, they build new and bigger luxurious apartments and are greatly respected. Those who have stayed behind, still earning low Chinese wages and living in older, more cramped dwellings, feel like losers. In a culture where mianzi - or face - has an important place, the Changs are willing to take any risks so they can keep up with the Wangs.
In his book "Human Snakes, Illegal Immigrants in America," Rutgers University professor Co Lin Chin says sailing across the ocean to the West is so embedded in the minds of Chinese residents that it has become a public competition. In a Fujian village theater, red posters are put on the wall listing the names of those who successfully landed in any western countries.
According to Mr. Chin, the attitude of local government officials toward such risky activities can be described as "secretly encouraging," if not "openly supporting." The reasons are obvious: more cash sent back from the West helps the local economy.
For those who have managed to make it to the West without getting caught, the favorite destinations are the Chinatowns of major cities like New York and San Francisco.
Since most illegal Chinese immigrants lack basic language skills and proper work permits, they become indentured servants, little more than slaves, and are paid very low wages when working illegally in restaurants and factories. To save enough money to pay back the smuggling fees they borrowed from friends and relatives, they live crammed together in shabby apartments. After work, their favorite forms of entertainment are underground gambling and prostitution, both of which flourish in places where immigrants gather.
The smuggling businesses earn profits of $3.2 billion per year, estimates Chin. Snake heads have developed a global criminal network with the ability to recruit, deliver, and exact payment from any Chinese who wants to make the trip from China to the western countries illegally.
In June 1999, the Golden Venture, a freighter laden with illegal Chinese immigrants, ran aground off Queens, New York, and 10 passengers drowned. The disaster prompted both Chinese and American officials to make the wholesale shipping of immigrants more difficult.
Despite the arrests and recent deaths of illegal immigrants, human smuggling is expected to continue because organized criminal groups make huge profits and because the obsession of going to the West continues unabated in Chinese villages. Moreover, Western nations such as the US and Britain do not have an effective policy to regulate the illegal workforce. As long as a demand for cheap labor exists, more Chinese will take the risks to "sneak across."
The trend will only be reversed when China becomes more prosperous. This may take another 30 to 50 years. Before that day comes, women in these villages will have to continue to live as widows - in some cases, rich widows living on money sent from the West.
*Wen Huang, a former staff member of The New York Times Beijing Bureau, is a Chicago freelance writer. Pin Ho is editor in chief of the New York-based online Chinese language news service (www.chinesenewsnet.com).
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society