For Some Chinese Migrants, Few Options in Xi’s China

 Lajas Blancas, Panama / Washington — With only a backpack, a portable tent and a small shoulder bag, Cong, a 47-year-old Chinese migrant, was one of more than a dozen migrants to step out of a narrow wooden boat on the stony shore of the Chucunaque River in Lajas Blancas, Panama.

The stop was one of dozens he had made over the past month, and it was where he met with VOA’s Mandarin Service on his journey toward the United States — a journey that began in China’s southwestern province of Sichuan. Cong declined to provide his full name, citing security concerns.

As he walked across the shore under the hot sun, wearing a long-sleeved black T-shirt, black sports shorts and white Croc-like slippers, he limped slightly from a swollen ankle caused by a slip while crossing a river earlier in his journey.

Immigrants from China are the fastest-growing group of people making the long journey to the U.S. border. Navigating Panama’s treacherous Darien Gap, and risking death and disease, is a key part of that journey.

Like many others, Cong says he got a lot of information from online sources about how to make the trek, including Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok. After half a year of planning, he decided, “I must go.”

“When I came out, I decided it’s going to be worth it, even if I die on the way,” he said.

When VOA asked the former crepe store owner why he traveled thousands of miles to a country he had never visited before, he replied, “Freedom.”

“I want freedom,” he said.

Cong said there is no freedom in China, which made him depressed. He said his Douyin account had been banned several times for using sensitive keywords and criticizing Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Cong said his definition of freedom is that he doesn’t have to do what he doesn’t want to do, and that he can criticize the president.

China’s sluggish economy was another big reason why he decided to leave the country. Its stock market is at a five-year low, and the country has seen a decline in exports and imports. Last June, Cong had to close his crepe store for lack of customers.

“No one has money. There is no easy business,” he said. “Without foreign trade, it’s all domestic money changing hands. How can that create wealth?”

Cong is not alone in making the decision to make the trek to the U.S. border.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection data shows that more than 37,000 Chinese migrants were detained at the U.S-Mexico border in 2023, nearly 10 times more than the previous year.

In the San Diego sector alone — stretching 100 kilometers inland from the Pacific Ocean — U.S. Border Patrol officials told a local television station this week they have made more than 140,000 arrests since October 1. They included about 20,000 people from China, a 500% increase over the same period a year earlier.

After crossing the border, the migrants surrender to the Border Patrol and declare their intention to seek asylum in the United States. They are processed and are often released within 72 hours. According to the Department of Justice, 55% of Chinese migrants were granted asylum last year.

Giuseppe Loprete, head of mission in Panama for the International Organization for Migration, a United Nations body that provides information for migrants crossing the Darien Gap, told Al Jazeera in an interview that the Chinese migrants are particularly vulnerable due to the language barrier and a perception that they are wealthy.

Cong said he paid $700 to a tour guide he found on the Chinese social media platform WeChat for instructions to get to Acandí, Colombia. From there, he walked for three days in the rain forest. He paid another $25 for the boat ride on the Chucunaque River. But that is only a fraction of the expenses he has incurred on his journey of more than a month from Sichuan through Thailand, Turkey, Ecuador, Colombia and now Panama.

The number of individuals leaving China has surged since Xi took office in 2013. According to the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, more than 700,000 Chinese sought asylum overseas between 2013 and 2021. That included more than 100,000 each year between 2019 and 2021, the last year for which UNHCR statistics are available.

The dramatic rise in Chinese migrants coming to the U.S. has raised national security concerns in America, with some questioning whether there are Chinese spies among them.

Republican Representative Mark Green, chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, sounded an alarm about the wave of Chinese migrants entering the United States last June, claiming the majority are military-age men with known ties to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the People’s Liberation Army.

Green and fellow Republicans Senator Marco Rubio and Representative Troy E. Nehls introduced the No Asylum for CCP Spies Act last year, which if passed, would prevent CCP members from seeking asylum in the U.S.

Border patrol agents encountered 5,717 single Chinese adults in January, more than twice as many as in any other January on record, CBP data shows. In December, that figure hit a record high of 7,581, while the total since January 2023 now stands at 64,979.

VOA Mandarin observed more Chinese men than women traveling alone.

With several thousand kilometers to go on his journey, Cong says few things are certain. He says he hopes to begin life in the U.S. by washing dishes in a restaurant after arriving at his final destination.

“Better to do all you can rather than floating along helplessly,” he said.

Calla Yu contributed to this report.

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