Date: Tue, 21 Sep 1999 23:09:23 -0500 (CDT)
From: Grassroots Media Network <>
Subject: China: Alien smuggling in Fujian
Article: 77264
To: undisclosed-recipients:;
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Human Cargo Big Business

By Linda Slobodian, Sun Media Newspapers (Canada), 20 September 1999

China's Fujian Province feeds much of the demand for people who board boats to flee their homeland—some of them ending up in Canada.

FUJIAN PROVINCE, China—China may be home to one-fifth of the world's poorest, but the people getting on boats to flee their homeland—some hoping to do so only long enough to get rich and return—aren't necessarily among them.

The business of smuggling illegal immigrants is a lucrative one for the organized criminals known as She Tou—snakeheads—whose fee, thanks to demand, has escalated from $10,000 US to $40,000 US a person over the past decade. This province, one of China's economic bright lights, feverishly feeds most of that demand.

There are no free rides for the human cargo the snakeheads, members of Triads (Chinese mafia), ruthlessly jam into decrepit drift net vessels. Not even at the start. Wealth that the wretchedly poor could only ever hope to dream of—a hefty down payment, backed by sufficient collateral at home—is required.

They must have a lot of money to get on the boat, says Yi Fong Lin, a likable, well-to-do hotel, restaurant and property owner in Lanjiang, a city of 40,000 about 70 kilometres northeast of the province's capital Fuzhou.

Between the two cities sits Mawei, the province's largest harbour on the Ming River, and a long, rugged coastline where small boats transport migrants from various points to vessels waiting in the Straits of Taiwan.

Like many cities and villages in the area, Lanjiang, population 40,000, loses about one in 10 residents every year, mostly to the U.S., Japan, Singapore and Canada. It's common knowledge some of them leave here via boat, but to authorities and outsiders, it is private, a heavily guarded secret.

Some go out of China in different ways, sometimes illegally, says Yi, insisting he knows no one who has chosen the difficult, dangerous route by boat or anyone involved in the business.

You may ask families how they send relatives. They may tell you something. They won't tell you the truth.

Yi, from his wealthy perch, resents the claim that poverty drives people away. Fujian, one of 23 provinces in China, is prosperous, particularly in its coastal villages, compared with inland provinces. It was a pioneer in China to take the road to private industry—textiles, chemicals, machinery, shoes—and is rich in agriculture.

To say China is very poor? No! Poor here? I don't think so. I make 7,000 yuan (almost $800 US) a day at my restaurant. I have several friends who have more than one million yuan.

When asked if they make their money legally in light of the fact that an excessively good monthly salary is 2,000 yuan, he laughs and simply says of course.

He insists on showing how people live in the immaculate Lanjiang, where brightly dressed, cherub-faced children attend two impressive primary schools. First, a tour through his brother-in-law Li Hai Qi's well-furnished, three-bedroom apartment complete with two large colour TVs.

Brother-in-law Li desperately wants his 19-year-old son, Bin, to go to university in Canada. Can you help? I'll pay, he says. His wife, Lin Xiun Qin, sits and smiles warmly as he fusses to serve expensive (18 yuan for a precious few leaves) Jin Long Zhu tea.

Next, it's on to a private, four-storey house with spacious rooms and three TVs. This cost 30,000 yuan to build, says businessperson Li. Many people live like this. People who go on the boat become slaves—it is better to live here. China has changed.

So why the exodus? Any why to Canada?

Some people leave to open their minds. Others, to earn money then return, he says.

Meanwhile, in another city, one source familiar with the intricate workings of the human cargo business, agreed to speak on condition of anonymity.

He said the illegal Chinese boat people caught in three vessels off the B.C. coast—190 on Sept. 1; 131 on Aug. 11; and 123 on July 20—likely were hoping to pursue the American dream. But Canadian officials—RCMP, the Coast Guard and the Defence Department—intercepted.

Usually, they don't catch half the boats, says the source.

In some cases, a person will go as a representative of 10 or 20 families. They are sweet-talked and made lavish promises of the good life by a trusted local acting as a paid agent for the snakeheads. It is never a spur-of-the moment or an individual decision.

It's a family or clan decision. 'We'll invest in you, you'll help us get there.' It's a big business, he says.

And a competitive one, for both the snakeheads and the many desperately vying to get a seat on the boat.

If you have thousands of dollars to pay to get on the boat, you are a leader. Millions want to be in your shoes. But there are 200 or fewer slots in the boat. How do I get a seat? It is the process of elimination.

He says smuggling illegal immigrants by boat is hardly new. In fact, the past decade has been exceedingly kind to the snakeheads' bottom line. Demand for seats has enabled them to virtually quadruple the fee.

The snakeheads appear to be aptly named.

The snakeheads look at these people and say ‘You are just a tool for me to make money.’ They don't care if they live or die. Better if they live, then they can make more money. They are ruthlessly cunning when they have the migrants who slip in undetected in their clutches.

The debt grows for whatever reasons. You are always at their mercy. They'll cheat you and mistreat you. You are handicapped. You don't know the language. You have no place to live. You have no choices. You arrive in Vancouver or Nova Scotia and are charged hidden costs. You are a slave, he says.

He says the agents often have a contract with a textile factory or some industry in Canada looking for cheap labour. The migrants readily work 12-hour days planning to either go home rich or save enough to bring relatives over.

It is getting increasingly more difficult to go home or bring family. That's because the debt accumulates, never to be paid. That's because they work illegally and they end up not getting paid by their bosses.

Or they pay off their debts by committing crimes for the snakeheads, the largest group said to be the big Circle Boys, Dai Huen Jai—heavily involved in illegal drug trafficking in Canada and the kings of human smuggling from Asia.

Do the illegal boat people know they will be forced to become connected with crime? So they know? What do they care? Everybody is in it for themselves, he says.

But the hopes and promises of milk and honey and fat bank accounts seldom materialize.

Some time ago, he visited illegal boat immigrants from Fujian who made it to New York where there's a large population from this province.

The living conditions there were in squalour. The cockroaches and rats were worse than what they had at home.

The government is understandably concerned that the human smuggling feeds into the black society—the Triads, he says.

It'll have to come to a head eventually because they'll overdo it. The Triads are fighting (for these lucrative profits).

They'll self-destruct and move on. Meanwhile, people are not benefiting—only the snakeheads. Guaranteed more boats will arrive.

In China, laws are not as harsh with snakeheads as with drug traffickers and others criminals.

That's only because the law is not keeping up with reality, he says.

Meanwhile, he says, people tempted by the lure of the snakeheads must be told not to be trapped—even if it's not what they want to believe.

In Mawei, population 20,000, like everywhere, a crowd presses in on the foreigners chatting through an interpreter with a couple of locals.

Lian Fu Qian, 50, a local fisher, has not heard a thing about people fleeing illegally on the boats. And he's lived here 30 years.

It's secret business, he says.

Life here is better than ever. I've never heard of people going hungry, he says, pointing to all the harbour jobs, the Taiwanese shoe factory, BOC computer plant, Fujian Ting Yi Food Company, and the Japanese electronics factory.

A few doors down, in his restaurant, Huang Ming Xian, flashing a big smile, peels vegetables.

People who go on the boats all come from far-reaching areas outside Mawei.

On the edge of Fujing are small farms. On one sits a dilapidated, impoverished house—with a colour TV.

Zhou Hua Zhen, who has the brightest, kindest eyes ever seen, invites us in, not even knowing why we came to visit.

Tea is immediately poured. Her sister, Zhou Bin Xiong, puts a bowl of peanuts on the table.

Wee Zhou Bin Xiong peers shyly, like so many children here do, from behind the safety of his mother's legs.

Can you help someone get to Canada? is Zhou's first anxious question. What kind of work could be done? How much money do you make?

Her husband, Lin qing Fu, says the flower farm, worked by three families, none of whom live in this shack, generates 2,000 to 3,000 yuan a month.

Some time ago, he tried to work in Japan and was told a passport and necessary documents through the proper channels would cost 10,000 yuan.

Like many, they are disillusioned by the complex, long legal process.

No, they would not consider fleeing on a boat.

Some people who have been sent back arrive very sick, he says.

And those who borrowed the down payment, at the time $6,000, returned heartbroken and indebted.

If you are caught by a country and sent back you still have a lot of money to pay. If you have a house, they take it away. You must sell your possessions to pay.

In Fuzhou, a businessperson who asked not to be identified, tries to shed some understanding on who is getting on the boats—and why.

This area has a history, a tradition of people leaving on a boat to earn money then come back, he says.

The poor move to the cities. These people who get on the boats cannot be called poor. In the country in south Fujian, dowries are obscenely lavish—up to one million yuan.

But people cannot go other ways. They have no education, so they are easy to manipulate when told: 'Come to paradise.' They're richer than us.

There are firms who help with the immigration process—they are paid up to $150,000 US by people.

Meanwhile, his eyes widen at the news 444 have been caught trying to sneak onto Canadian shores.

The number 4 is considered unlucky—there is no fourth floor in hotels.