Perhaps the most famous border in the world is the one along the Rio Grande that separates Mexico from the United States. It is almost certainly the most popular. U.S. Border Patrol agents encountered over 200,000 migrants attempting to enter the country last November alone. About two-thirds were apprehended and one-third expelled.
The migrants represent a host of countries. Mexico, Cuba and Venezuela top the list. A host of other Latin and South American countries follow. And they come from across the world: Russia, India, Turkey and increasingly from China.
It’s a long hike from the Yangtze to the Rio Grande. The Chinese may travel through as many as nine countries by airplane, train, boat and bus, including a trek through the brutal jungle of Panama’s Darién Gap on foot. These are desperate people.
Gao Zhibin, who made the journey with his 13-year old daughter, felt they had no choice, saying that he believed Xi Jinping may lead China to famine and even war. The Chinese are now the fourth largest group coming through the Gap.
If they make it to the U.S., they surrender at the border and are detained in immigration jails where they apply for asylum citing. When their asylum applications are accepted, they can work and make a new life in freedom.
Chinese with money and education are seeking other routes, such as education and work visas, but their motives are the same—escaping increasing political oppression and declining economic prospects.
This was to be China’s century. President Xi Jinping said so. “The East is rising while the West is declining,” he has said, claiming that China’s governance model is superior to Western democratic systems. But when growing numbers of a country’s people start showing up at the U.S. border, one might safely assume that things are not going all that well with that country’s governance model.
And they certainly aren’t with China’s. China’s economic recovery from the pandemic is flagging. The powerhouse of its economy and the country’s largest industry, the real estate sector, is in a steep slide.
Developers have almost stopped buying land, putting many local governments, for whom land sales are their main source of revenue, in crisis. This has also created troubles for individual Chinese (most households major investment is in apartments) and for the central government.
Youth unemployment is soaring and people have become reluctant to spend. The bloom is indeed off the Chinese economic rose.
As the economy flags, the political noose tightens. The Communist Party recently released a detailed ideological statement insisting that financial institutions must follow Marxist principles and pay obedience to Xi. According to Chen Zhiwu, a finance professor at the University of Hong Kong, “Politics will for sure further dictate China’s finance, effectively moving China even closer to how it was before the reforms started in 1978.”
Apparently Chinese financiers and businesspeople are complaining that they are required to spend tedious hours studying Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era, the Xi version of Mao’s little red book.
Since assuming power in 2012, Xi has initiated endless purges, removing thousands of officials, including many loyalists from the inner ring of his own clique. Recently these included the unexplained disappearance of China’s foreign and defence ministers, the generals in charge of China’s nuclear weapons program and some of the most senior officials overseeing the Chinese financial sector. Several have apparently died in custody.
This paranoid atmosphere has created fears that an isolated and paranoid Xi could provoke armed conflict with one of its weaker neighbours or even invade Taiwan in order to distract from his domestic troubles.
A joke making the rounds of Chinese migrants sums up the exodus: “Why did you go to the United States?” someone asks. “Aren’t you satisfied with your pay, your benefits and your life?” The migrant responds: “Yes, I’m satisfied. But in the U.S., I will be allowed to say that I’m not satisfied.” Saying no—one of freedom’s privileges.
For forty years after Mao, the party gradually loosened control over society. Businesses, including those in finance, were encouraged to innovate and make money. Now allegiance to the party trumps profits or just about anything else.
There is a profound sadness about what has happened to the two former leading communist powers. For a short while it appeared they were both on their way to joining the free world. Then Putin and Xi arrived and those hopes have been dashed. Both now lapse back into their former authoritarian darkness. One small step ahead is being followed by one large step back.