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How life has changed on China’s border with Southeast Asia

Idusty In a watermelon field in Ruili on the Chinese border, a farmer looks south with a hoe. On the other side of the border, he could hear chickens clucking in Burma. He had been able to see the country he was born in and the country where he still had family and land. Now, however, a steel wall blocked his view. It is topped with barbed wire, cameras and speakers that occasionally sound a warning to keep intruders away.

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China’s border with Southeast Asia is about 5,000 kilometers (3,100 miles) long, stretching from Vietnam to Myanmar (see map). According to the 2020 census, approximately 8.8 million people live in the surrounding area on the Chinese side. Ruili, Mohan, and Hekou ports are very lively. Billions of dollars of goods cross the border every year, most legally and some not. Until recently, people from both sides – often from the same race – could mingle and trade without much state interference.

But life along the border has changed over the past three years. During the covid-19 pandemic, obstacles have arisen across China. Most are temporary, designed to keep people at home so they don’t spread the virus. The border wall—actually a collection of fences, walls and barriers—is designed to keep the coronavirus out. Parts of it existed before the pandemic. Now it is “pretty complete,” said Hu Zhiding of East China Normal University in Shanghai. Today, officials see it as a way to stop smuggling and other illegal activities. What was once China’s most porous border is now one of its tightest.

China’s southern border was once notoriously violent. The natives who inhabited the hills, forests and rivers that separated China from Burma, Laos and Vietnam were masters of “the art of not being governed,” as one historian puts it. Faced with this challenge, along with unknown diseases and unforgiving terrain, China’s emperors never fully controlled the region. They made do and listened to pledges of loyalty from local leaders. Exactly where the imperial authority ends is unclear. Still, the emperor took advantage of the area. Disgraced officials were exiled to the south, where they often died of malaria.

Some boundary markers were placed in the late 19th century after the declining Qing Dynasty negotiated with European colonial officials in what was then Burma and Indochina. Locals probably ignored them. Decades later, with the fall of the Qing Dynasty, China fell into chaos and the borders became even more imaginary. In the 1940s, American pilots flew over it to fight Japanese pilots who were invading China. A few years later, some Nationalist generals who had been defeated by the Communists in the Chinese civil war fled across the border, eventually starting new careers as opium-trading warlords in northern Burma.

When traveling abroad is easy

It was not until 2009 that China and Vietnam agreed on a long-disputed land border that mapmakers were able to draw a clear line between China and Southeast Asia. However, the reality remains a mess. At official entry points in China, passports are stamped and duties are collected. Guards will patrol sensitive areas. But between them, especially along the border with Myanmar, locals use a large number of unofficial crossings. They might hop several times a day to work their fields, work in a factory, or just meet friends.

China is increasingly concerned. Illegal goods such as heroin, rosewood and human hair (used in wigs) are also transported across borders. Chinese citizens went south one after another, some went to casinos in Myanmar to gamble, some joined gangs, and used the phone or the Internet to defraud Chinese people of their money. For a while, leaders in Beijing relied on locals to report suspicious activity along the border. In Ruili, there is a warning written on the wall: “Cow herding is also guarding. Those who plow the fields are also on duty.”

Those efforts have taken on added urgency during the pandemic. The top priority of local governments is to cut off any sources of infection. All foreigners and foreign goods are suspicious. Locals are called to work at remote border posts in the forest. Capturing trespassers is rewarded handsomely. In an interview with state media, one volunteer described the “venomous snakes” and “knife-wielding drug dealers” he encountered while guarding the border. “Where the country needs me, I am willing to go!” He said proudly.

Meanwhile, hundreds of millions of dollars have been earmarked for building, expanding and strengthening border barriers. Today, the Great Wall of the South, as some call it, cuts through fields and forests. In some places, it was dug deep enough to deter would-be tunnelers. Some areas have cameras and motion sensors that, when triggered, send live video to the cell phones of nearby guards.

Local leaders claim the wall and other efforts have greatly reduced nefarious activity. At a news conference last June, a public security official in Yunnan province said he had used the outbreak as an “opportunity” to strengthen border security. As a result, the amount of drugs seized has dropped by 62.4% since the end of 2021, he boasted. He added that illegal border crossings for fraud, gambling and smuggling had “fallen off a cliff”. His claim that more than 99% of suspects are apprehended at the border may have slightly undermined his credibility. But residents of Ruili, Yunnan, agree that crossing the border illegally has become more difficult.

According to state media, the people of Yunnan are delighted with the development. “We feel we are safe and our motherland is strong!” one person was quoted as saying Yunnan Daily, a government-run newspaper. Some Ruili residents applaud the new controls for reducing illegal drug use. Others compared China’s construction of the wall to Donald Trump’s failed attempt to build a wall along the southern U.S. border with Mexico. Nationalist blogger mocks former president. One netizen wrote that if Trump had outsourced construction to China, his wall would have been “done already”.

Publicity aside, many Yunnan residents are frustrated. During the epidemic, especially Ruili. It is subject to some of the toughest and most extensive blockades in China. Over the past three years, the population has more than halved to 200,000 as people fled to other parts of the country, a local official said. To add insult to injury, some Burmese citizens were forcibly repatriated. Others tried unsuccessfully to tear down the border wall, locals said.

Now the long way is the only way

People who stayed in Ruili reported that their lives have become more difficult. Take the watermelon farmer who, before the pandemic, would jump across rivers to manage his land in Myanmar. Now he has to travel 30 kilometers east to cross the border at the official post, and then travel back 30 kilometers to reach his land. He has not seen his family in Myanmar since 2020.

Others have lost their livelihoods trading innocuous goods such as cosmetics or snacks from one side of the border to the other. Unemployment is rising on both sides, locals say. Goods from Myanmar must now go through authorized channels, where officials apply for duties. As a result, prices have risen, traders say. One person in Ruili complained that the cost of jadeite, the rock that is cut and polished to make jade jewelry, had doubled.

Locals miss the days when international travel was the equivalent of walking across fields or through some woods. But many seem to let the hardened borders go. “The wall is here,” said a businessman in Ruili. “At first I had strong feelings about it. Now I’m just numb.”

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