The Rush to ‘Gold Mountain’

The Seattle Times
April 16, 2000
By Alex Tizon

FUZHOU, China – Last month a popular deputy governor was put to death by the central government via a bullet through the heart. His crime: accepting bribes in exchange for smuggling people out of the country. Hu Changqing, a small, round man with horn-rimmed glasses on a cherubic face, was the highest-ranking official yet executed for graft, and his sentence the most forceful statement to date in the government’s newest campaign to stop its citizens from illegally migrating abroad.

The campaign has been concentrated in Fujian province, of which Fuzhou is the capital city. For reasons both historical and peculiar to the region, most of the hundreds of thousands of Chinese who have sneaked out of the country in the past two decades came from the area around this city, a pocket of oceanfront land only slightly larger than King County.

On buildings and bridges here, posters admonish the populace to “Forcefully smash human smuggling evil wind!”

Fuzhou police say in the last year they have foiled 94 human-smuggling schemes involving 1,477 people; 450 have received prison sentences (most for less than two years), and more than 3,000 Chinese have been repatriated from foreign countries.

The crackdown is widely viewed as a result of publicity and foreign pressure surrounding the boatloads of Chinese stowaways that have landed on North American shores since last summer in British Columbia, continuing through last week in Long Beach, Calif., where authorities found another 15 stowaways hidden in a cargo container.

The migration was punctuated by the deaths of three stowaways in a cargo container unloaded in Seattle three months ago. Nearly 50 Chinese nationals attempting to enter Washington state inside cargo containers have been arrested and detained in Seattle since Jan. 1. Two men have been convicted of smuggling and will be sentenced June 2.

The three dead and 15 survivors of the NYK Cape May reportedly came from a village about 20 miles from Fuzhou. The victims’ relatives, fearful of official reprisals, have not claimed the dead, whose bodies remain in storage with the King County Medical Examiner. The survivors are in detention awaiting action from the INS.

“It’s not a good time to speak on this,” said Cho Li Muwang, 29, through a translator. Cho, an unemployed odd-jobber, lives in a hamlet east of Fuzhou. He is a tall, angular man, with a slightly hunched posture. He speaks in bursts.

He has twice tried to leave the country and may consider a third try. “After some time, it will be all right again,” he said. “The police are showing off, but it won’t last forever.”

In the streets of Fuzhou, and in the surrounding towns and villages, the overriding sentiment is that the government crackdown may temporarily chill smuggling activity and impress foreigners, but will not stem the tide of immigrants going abroad to find riches.

The government has waged anti-smuggling campaigns before, most memorably after the 1993 Golden Venture incident, in which a cargo ship of that name ran aground in the waters off New York City, off-loading 260 Chinese. Ten drowned while trying to swim ashore. But the Chinese government’s resolve waned soon after American outrage died down.

Observers say the government cannot sustain the effort because many local officials are themselves involved in smuggling — a contention supported by a wave of recent police arrests.

But the main reason human smuggling to the U.S. and other developed nations will continue, Cho and others say, is simply that the risks are worth the potential reward. Those who don’t understand this will not understand the driving force.

America is not called “Gold Mountain” for nothing. Dollars are like gold nuggets here. The migration to the U.S. must be seen as a gold rush.

Said Cho: “Look at your salary. If you can go to some other place, even very far away, across the ocean, and work the same, but make 10 times more money, would you go? What about 20 times more? What about 100 times more? Would you go?”

China’s Wild West

Fujian Province sits along China’s southeast coast, a slanted rectangle roughly two-thirds the size of Washington state. At last count, 32 million people lived here. A strip of mountains runs through the region, separated from the ocean by a narrow band of flatlands. The mountains act as a natural barrier, sheltering the flatlands where most of the people live.

Its geography and distance from Beijing allowed the province to develop somewhat independently of the powers that be. Fujian evolved through history into a maverick land of adventurers and outlaws, China’s version of the Wild West extended back in time thousands of years. Overseas trade was as much a part of the local culture as fishing and rice-farming.

Northern Chinese historically regarded the Northern Fujianese as a hardy, tough-minded people, enterprising to the point of aggressiveness, and occasionally cutthroat in their quest for fortune. Which may partly explain why more than half of Asia’s 40 billionaires of Chinese ancestry came from Fujian or descended from Fujianese.

Today, the two main cities of the province, Fuzhou and Xiamen, have the look of modern urban centers. At least they have the tall buildings.

But the cities feel undesigned, messy, with the look in many parts of having been built in a hurry. The stubborn landscape springs up between new buildings in the form of ancient banyan trees and palm trees that rise above the dust and din of the streets. No doubt, on the piers along the river’s edge, some of the old outlaw ethos lingers.

“Zhoushui” (literally, “walk on water”) in the local dialect means going overseas to make a living, a traditional survival strategy. Transplanted Fujianese live in 51 countries, with large populations in nearby Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, the U.S. and Latin America.

In some counties around Fuzhou, every household has one or more relatives abroad. To not have a relative abroad is seen as a sign of laziness or lack of initiative and can bring embarrassment to a family. Mostly it’s the men who go overseas. So many women are left alone that some towns are called “widow villages.”

One such “widow,” Zhang Jing, 34, a tall, dark-skinned woman with a slightly imperial manner and Western-style purple-tinted hair, lives in an immense four-story glass-and-tile home in a village outside Fuzhou. The home, palatial on the outside, is only half-finished on the inside. Only the two bottom floors are habitable. The floors are bare concrete. Zhang lives here with her brother, sister-in-law, niece and mother-in-law.

Zhang’s husband works in a restaurant outside Los Angeles. Her neighbors say he was smuggled by boat to Mexico, then crossed the border into California. When told what her neighbors said, Zhang did not deny it. Her house, she said, is being built piece by piece as her husband sends money home, about $800 a month.

The husband went to the U.S. four years ago. It took a full year before he began sending money home, but during that year, Zhang said, the family was able to borrow money from a loan shark just by virtue of having a relative in the U.S. The family used the money to start a small business in their back yard, making rubber slippers. They have hired two peasants from Sichuan Province.

“Life was very hard before,” Zhang said. “It is getting better every day. I feel more hope.”

She does not know when she will see her husband again. She hopes soon. She said she misses him.

While Fujian is one of the most prosperous provinces in the country, it is still largely a land of farmers, factory workers, and low-level office and retail workers. The average city worker earns 1,500 yuan, or $181, a month. The average rural worker makes 1,000 yuan or $120 a month. A schoolteacher makes $60 a month. Some rice farmers must work a year to earn that much.

In any given village, it’s easy to see which households have an overseas relative and which don’t. The countryside around Fuzhou is marked by countless clusters of three-, four- and five-story mansions, like Zhang’s, many half-finished, standing at the edge of rice fields, and often side-by-side with cinderblock shacks. The money to build the mansions comes from relatives abroad.

In Changle, a city of 600,000, officials estimate that remittances and investments from overseas Changlenese amount to more than $100 million annually.

One of richest men in Changle and an inspiration to many would-be migrants, Chen Yuan, 37, traveled to the U.S. illegally in the 1980s, won amnesty, became a U.S. citizen and returned to Changle to set up a business empire. He recently invested $100 million in a development project next to the new Changle International Airport.

Zhoushui, going overseas, has been a tolerated, if officially illegal, strategy. The government turned a blind eye to it because, locals believe, zhoushui accomplishes two goals: It reduces the local population and brings money into the local economy.

Greater Fuzhou alone has 6 million people. What many Westerners call “villages” or “rural areas” can have populations of 200,000 or more. And as landless, out-of-work peasants from China’s interior flood to coastal provinces in search of jobs, places like Fuzhou can seem in the midst of a stampede.

At any given hour, the city’s streets can be a sea of faces, all slightly browned by the subtropical sun, all seemingly earnest, and pressed together in unthinkable densities. Armies of bicyclists weave between cars. Work crews building new apartments work day and night. The city buzzes and clanks and roars. Crowds stir up a constant, swirling dust storm.

Cho Li Muwang’s first attempt to sneak into the U.S. involved a local official who promised an exit visa and passport in exchange for 60,000 yuan, or $7,255. The official had illicitly sold travel documents to other relatives, including one of Cho’s uncles, who went to Australia. While Cho was trying to borrow the money from relatives, the official mysteriously backed out of the deal, evidently scared off.

“Official corruption plays a very, very big role,” said Ko-lin Chin, a criminal-justice professor at Rutgers University who has traveled and worked extensively in Fuzhou. Chin has recently written a book on human smuggling.

“For this to happen on such a large scale,” he said, “smugglers have to have relationships with Chinese authorities,” a contention corroborated by a series of recent police arrests along the southeastern coast.

Hu Changqing, the deputy governor of neighboring Jiangxi Province who was executed March 8, was only the highest-profile bust in the government’s new crusade to stamp out official corruption. Hu was convicted of accepting $880,000 in bribes and land in return for issuing exit permits to people wanting to leave the country via Hong Kong.

Many other officials, including some city leaders and the provincial police chief, have been implicated in smuggling activity of all kinds involving everything from cars and televisions to diesel oil and human beings. Those who smuggle humans are called “snakeheads,” a derogatory term first used by police. The term has caught on even though many people, like Cho, see smugglers more as benefactors than criminals.

About a year-and-a-half ago, in his second attempt to sneak abroad, Cho contacted a snakehead through a friend. The snakehead worked in a labor-export company. Cho agreed to pay a down payment of $3,000 — an amount he borrowed from immediate and extended family — with the rest of the $30,000 fee to be paid in installments after arrival in Atlanta, the final destination.

The plan was to ride a fishing boat to Canada, where they would be picked up and brought across the border to the U.S. The journey, involving about 40 would-be migrants, began seven months after his first meeting with the snakehead. By then it was spring 1999. Cho and four other men from the Fuzhou area took a bus to Shanghai, a 22-hour journey north over rugged mountains. The men were kept in a house outside Shanghai for a week.

A dozen or so other men arrived during their stay. Cho said they were treated well, were fed good food and allowed to venture out in the streets. One morning around 1 a.m., the men were taken in vans to a seaport town named Nan Tong. They boarded skiffs that brought them to a bigger boat in the bay. Cho said small boats delivered people all night. In the end, there were about 35 would-be migrants.

Once loaded, the big boat made another stop along the coast and a few days later stopped somewhere in Vietnam, where another group of men and one woman — all Chinese — came on board. Cho said a bottom compartment of the ship was outfitted with makeshift bunk beds. Next to the beds were wooden tables bolted to the floor. Bowls were nailed to the table. The migrants, ordered to stay in the compartment, relieved themselves in plastic pails that were emptied several times a day. A week after heading across the ocean, the ship was stopped by “an American boat” and ordered to turn back. Cho said he believes their boat was near Hawaii. The return journey took four days.

“They were long days,” Cho said. “Everybody felt hopeless. A few of the people got sick, and the crew members were in angry moods.”

The U.S. Coast Guard verified that in the spring and summer of 1999, a number of vessels carrying Chinese migrants were intercepted and turned back, including two ships near the island of Midway, a U.S. territory 1,150 miles northwest of Honolulu.

Upon returning to Fujian, Cho and several others were “scolded” by police and threatened with jail, but nothing happened. Cho said he believes his snakehead bribed somebody to keep them out of jail.

The people who emigrate on boats tend to be like Cho: poor, undereducated, with weak or no overseas connections. A survey done by Chin of Rutgers found that the majority of illegal Chinese who made it to New York City were married males between age 20 and 40, with a junior-high education or less, and tended to be laborers or blue-collar workers in China.

“Boat people” get more press, but the majority of the estimated 50,000 Chinese who annually immigrate illegally to the U.S. arrive by plane, or by car, driving across the Mexican or Canadian border, using illegal travel documents or legal visas as door-openers. Would-be migrants with more education, money and connections tend to go this route.

One 35-year-old Fujianese engineer, who wanted to be identified only as Mr. Xian, said he would never consider stowing away on a boat.

A gregarious man who exuded not a hint of neediness, Mr. Xian studied engineering at Qinghua University and was an official in the government’s Ministry of Machinery before it was phased out.

China’s cities teem with tens of thousands of laid-off government workers like Mr. Xian, workers deemed superfluous by downsize-minded new administrators. Mr. Xian, married with a 10-year-old daughter, now works as an engineer in a small machine shop, earning 1,700 yuan, or $205, a month.

“I would not go on a boat, but if there is another way, I would do it,” he said. “Maybe I can go as a scholar or on a trade mission. I would go, then find a way to stay.”

Mr. Xian expressed a sentiment common in the province: that somehow China’s system has failed them. When Fujianese of the same skill and intelligence work under a different system, they prosper, and some strike it rich. In this context, snakeheads are seen by many Fujianese not as criminals but as helpers, even liberators. And contrary to the depiction of smuggling rings as organized-crime groups, the typical snakehead could just as well be someone’s uncle who works in a government-sponsored export company or shipping line.

According to Chin of Rutgers, and other experts, so-called smuggling rings tend to be informal, highly fluid, far-flung networks of friends and families trying to help their own. Organized crime no doubt comes into play in many circumstances, but usually not as organizations, rather as individual players dabbling in “projects.”

In his newly released book, “Smuggled Chinese” (Temple University Press), Chin describes a typical smuggling ring:

A woman in charge of a government trade unit in Fuzhou interacted only with government officials; her assistant dealt with customers directly, recruiting, collecting down payments, signing contracts, and so forth. A childhood friend and member of the Public Security Bureau was responsible for securing travel documents. A relative in Singapore traveled to countries such as Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia to set up transit points. The primary leader and investor, based in New York, was responsible for subcontracting with a Queens-based gang to keep immigrants in safe houses and collecting fees after arrival in the U.S.

Chin, writing a second book on smuggling, has interviewed 100 snakeheads. He said typical “big snakeheads,” the financiers, tend to be respected Chinese businessmen who came to the United States 10 or 20 years ago, became U.S. citizens and began by smuggling family and friends to the U.S.

“Many continued and expanded because of the huge demand,” he said “To them, it’s a way to make money and also help people in China.”

Chin believes it is misguided and ultimately futile to view Chinese smuggling rings as the work of organized crime or Triads because it does not acknowledge how deeply rooted the tradition is to Fujianese culture. There is even a traditional term for it — tongxiang, an informal association of people from the same place who help one another get settled in new lands.

Like the news media in the United States, party-controlled newspapers in China emphasize the abuse and hardship stowaways suffer on the high seas and recount horror stories of extortion, rape and murder in their new lands — all of which indeed happen. Police on both sides of the Pacific have documented cases of heinous crimes committed upon stowaways.

But the villagers and townspeople of Fujian recognize a propaganda campaign when they see one. True horror stories, such as the fate of the three men who died inside the container of the Seattle-bound ship, are exceptions. It is accepted among the Fujianese, a people only one-generation or less from a life of back-breaking subsistence labor, that any gold rush will have its casualties.

The truth that matters more comes back through thousands of monthly remittances that each amount to a small fortune, through annual visits by American relatives who come with gifts and stories of triumph and who dot the countryside with gleaming new houses and cars, and through business moguls returning to build shopping malls and office buildings next to rice fields still plowed by hand.

The message in all this: The rewards are worth the risks. China’s leaders know the only real solution to human smuggling is to raise the nation’s economy to parity with the West — a goal that China seems to be rushing headlong toward but with a long way to go. In many subtle ways, Chinese leaders seem to be telling the masses to be patient.

On the way out of Fuzhou, toward the airport, a gigantic double-sided billboard rises above the highway. On one side, for people entering the city, the sign reads in large English words: “Welcome to Fuzhou.” On the other side, for people leaving, the sign reads, perhaps as both an apology and a promise: “Fuzhou will be better in the future.”