Chinese risk perilous journey in search of ‘freedom’ in the United States

Thousands of middle-class Chinese are trekking thousands of kilometres through the Americas to the southern US border.

Asylum-seekers from China wait to be processed by U.S. Border Patrol agents after crossing the nearby border with Mexico. They are standing in a line, Some have luggage. One has a bright yellow suitcase
Asylum seekers from China wait to be processed by US officials near the border in California [File: Denis Poroy/AP Photo]

Last year, Chinese businessman Li Xiaosan and his teenage son travelled 5,000 kilometres (3,107 miles) through Central America to reach the United States.

In Colombia, they were robbed at gunpoint and lost almost all their valuables. In Panama, they trekked through treacherous jungle and swamp, and in Mexico took a perilous 12-hour voyage by sea.

At Chinese New Year they video-chatted with family members back home in China, and Li’s son broke down in tears. Li told him: “Freedom is not free.”

Li and his son were among more than 37,000 Chinese nationals who were arrested for illegally crossing the US’s southern border in 2023, and Chinese nationals are now the largest group outside of the Americas to attempt the perilous journey. Many, like Li, are middle class.

“Everything about the country’s politics and economy was dark,” Li told Al Jazeera. “What’s the meaning of living there without any hope?”

Li’s life in China once seemed like the “Chinese dream” come true. The 44-year-old grew up in a poor village in China’s central Henan province, got a college education and founded a company trading leather products. He once owned multiple apartments and sent his two sons to international schools in Thailand.

But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Li’s comfortable life was turned upside down. Orders from international clients dried up, and his business collapsed. Li returned to his hometown in Henan but soon realised that due to China’s strict lockdown policies, he could not even leave his residential compound to buy the medicines he needed.

Being outspoken had also landed Li in trouble. For more than a decade, he had criticised the government online and twice had been interrogated by the local authorities. The last interrogation in 2022 lasted for hours. For Li, it was the last straw.

“My life in China was definitely better than in America. I have nothing in America. But I want to enjoy freedom of speech,” Li said. “I want to say whatever I want and don’t have to worry about the police knocking on my door.”

Li and his son made it to the US state of Texas last February. They were detained by US border authorities for five days, before they were released and continued to their final destination – New York, where they currently live.

‘Voting with feet’

Like Li, many middle-class Chinese trekking to the US are college-educated, have an established career or business in China and know how to use a VPN to avoid official censorship and access the free internet.

Mostly in their 30s and 40s, they grew up when China had impressive economic growth and became more connected with the rest of the world. But now they feel increasingly suffocated by the country’s lacklustre economy and the government’s tightening political grip. Many find the US attractive because they see it as an economic powerhouse where there is also political freedom.

“I have known for a long time that our system has huge issues, but the economy used to be good and covered up many problems,” 40-year-old Vincent Wang, who is now in Mexico waiting for his asylum appointment to enter the US, said of China.

Wang used to run a guesthouse in Dali, an idyllic mountain town in China’s southwest that was popular among young domestic tourists. Before the pandemic, his guesthouse was often fully booked, turning an average monthly profit of $4,000. But business plummeted and even after Beijing finally ended its strict zero-COVID policy, the boom was short-lived, according to Wang.

“People just don’t have much money at hand any more. They are not spending any more,” he told Al Jazeera.

Migrants from China and Ecuador huddle together around a fire at a makeshift camp after crossing the border into the US.
Asylum seekers gather around a fire in a makeshift desert camp in Jacumba Hot Springs in California [Mario Tama/Getty Images via AFP]

Since China lifted its zero-COVID policy, its much-anticipated economic comeback has failed to gain traction. In 2023, China’s economy grew by 5.2 percent, hitting the official target, but concerns about sluggish growth remained amid structural problems, including a property market crisis and record-high debt. At the same time, China’s intensifying control over all aspects of life, ranging from restrictions on online speech to media censorship, has fuelled discontent among some citizens.

Wang says the situation in which he found himself led to a “political depression” and he could no longer see a future for himself in China. “I have lived through half of my life. In the second half, I want to be freer,” he said.

Last year, Wang started to collect information about the Central America route on Telegram, a messaging app where many Chinese migrants share their experiences of the journey.

Earlier this year, he flew to Ecuador and headed towards the US.

Ecuador, which provided visa-free travel for Chinese nationals until recently, has been a gateway to the US for Chinese migrants. In 2023, Ecuador documented about 24,000 Chinese nationals entering the country, a twofold increase compared with the previous five-year average. Almost 80 percent of the Chinese were either high or middle-skilled professionals. Middle-class young Chinese men are the demographic most likely to have the financial means and physical strength to complete the migratory route to the US via Ecuador, according to a recent report by the Niskanen Center, a Washington, DC-based think tank.

On July 1, Ecuador suspended visa-free entry into the country for Chinese citizens due to the increase in irregular migration but social media chatter suggests that it may do little to stop Chinese from migrating to the US through Central America. Messages among Chinese migrants on Telegram indicate that some plan to start their journey further south from Bolivia, where Chinese passport holders can get a visa on arrival. Other Chinese migrants have used more discreet and convenient routes, such as flying into Mexico with a valid Japanese multiple-entry visa which unlocks visa exemption in Mexico.

For Chinese middle class like Wang and Li, their options for migrating to the US are limited. While more affluent Chinese opt for investor visas, those who are less wealthy struggle to obtain a US visa. The refusal rate for Chinese nationals applying for US tourist and business visas was 27 percent last year, higher than before the pandemic. And due to a huge backlog of applications, the wait time for US visa appointments in China is now more than two months. Both Li and Wang cited difficulties obtaining a US tourist visa as one of the reasons they embarked on the treacherous trip through the Americas.

Personal sacrifices

For middle-aged, middle-class migrants, the decision to leave China comes with great personal sacrifice. Due to safety concerns, Li left his wife and younger son behind. He also had to bid farewell to his father, who was ill with terminal cancer. “My dad was already very weak. I knew if I left China, I would never see him again,” said Li with a shaking voice. His father died a few months after Li arrived in the US.

Undocumented Chinese migrants also often face a struggle to support themselves once they get to the United States. Last June, the Chinese consulate in Los Angeles issued a notice that many undocumented Chinese migrants who had recently reached the US chose to return to China, as they did not have legal status or sufficient income. “China opposes and firmly cracks down on all forms of illegal migration”, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said in April.

Once he got to New York City, Li took on a slew of odd jobs – from construction worker to busboy in a Chinese restaurant and running a street stall selling China-made accessories. “It was really tough,” he recalled.

After saving up some funds, Li founded a translation firm earlier this year with his business partner, another Chinese migrant he met in the Panamanian jungles. Now Li’s only wish is to reunite with his wife and younger son, who may be able to come to the US if he is granted political asylum.

Wang, the former guesthouse owner, is awaiting his digital appointment via CBP One, an app launched by the US Customs and Border Protection to process appointments to claim asylum.

As he bides his time in Mexico City, he says he is willing to live a frugal life and work in demanding jobs if he secures asylum.

“To be honest, I know the US is not a paradise, but I know where hell is,” he said. “I had to get out of there.”

Source: Al Jazeera