Gao Zhibin and his daughter left Beijing on February 24 for a better and safer life. Over the next 35 days, by plane, train, boat, bus and on foot, they traveled to nine countries. By the time they touched American soil in late March, Mr. Gao had lost 30 pounds.
The most arduous part of their trip was hiking through the wild jungle of Panama, known as the Darién Gap. On the first day, said Mr. Gao, 39, he got sunstroke. On the second day, his feet swelled. Dehydrated and weakened, he threw away his tent, a moisture-proof mattress and his change of clothes.
Then her 13-year-old daughter fell ill. She was lying on the ground, vomiting, her face pale, her forehead feverish, her hands on her stomach. Mr. Gao said he thought she might have drunk dirty water. Trailing through the muddy and dangerous rainforests of the Darién Gap, they took a break every 10 minutes. They didn’t arrive at their destination, a campsite in Panama, until 9 p.m.
Mr Gao said he felt he had no choice but to leave China.
“I think we will only be safe by coming to the United States,” he said, adding that he believed Xi Jinping, China’s leader, could lead the country to famine and eventually war. “This is a rare opportunity to protect myself and my family,” he said.
A growing number of Chinese have entered the United States this year through the Darién Gap, surpassed only by Venezuelans, Ecuadorians and Haitians, according to Panamanian immigration authorities.
This is a dangerous route once traveled primarily by Cubans and Haitians, and to a lesser extent by Nepalese, Indians, Cameroonians and Congolese. The Chinese are fleeing the world’s second largest economy.
Educated and affluent Chinese migrate through legal channels, such as study and work visas, to escape bleak economic prospects and political oppression – motivations shared by Darién Gap migrants.
Most of them followed a strategy circulating on social media: cross the border through the Darién Gap, surrender to U.S. border agents, be detained in immigration jails, and seek asylum under a credible fear if he were sent back to China. Many will be released within a few days. Once their asylum application is accepted, they can work and rebuild their lives in the United States.
Their flight is a referendum on the rule of Mr Xi, now in his third five-year term. Boasting that “the East is rising while the West is declining”, he said in 2021 that China’s model of governance had proven superior to Western democratic systems and that the economy’s center of gravity world was moving “from West to East”.
All the immigrants I interviewed this year who crossed the Darién Gap — a journey known as zouxian, or walking the line, in Chinese — were from a lower-middle class background. They said they feared falling into poverty if China’s economy deteriorated and that they could no longer envision a future for themselves or their children in their home country.
In Mr. Xi’s China, anyone could become a state target. You might get in trouble if you are Christian, Muslim, Uyghur, Tibetan or Mongolian. Or a worker demanding back pay, a landlord protesting the delay in completing an unfinished apartment, a student using a virtual private network to access Instagram, or a Communist Party cadre who finds himself with a copy of a banned book.
More than 24,000 Chinese migrants were temporarily detained at the U.S. southern border in fiscal year 2023, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Over the previous decade, fewer than 15,000 Chinese migrants were caught crossing the southern border illegally.
The influx of desperate Chinese braving the Darién Gap is a reversal of a long-standing trend.
In the 1980s and 1990s, millions of Chinese emigrated to developed countries, including the United States, to enjoy higher standards of living and a freer society. As China’s economy took off in the early 2000s and the government relinquished some control over society, a large majority of Chinese students returned home after graduating. Wages in China were rising rapidly and job opportunities were plentiful.
Until September 2018, Mr. Gao was a Chinese success story. He grew up in a village in the eastern province of Shandong and moved to Beijing in 2003 to work on an assembly line at an electronics factory. He earned about $100 a month. Using his street smarts, Mr. Gao made money helping factories and construction sites hire workers.
In 2007, he rented land in the suburbs of Beijing and built a building divided into around a hundred tiny rooms. He made about $30,000 a year renting them out to migrant workers. He married, had two children and also moved his parents to Beijing.
In 2018, the local government wanted to reclaim the land for development. Mr. Gao refused. Authorities cut off water and electricity and pumped toilet wastewater into the yard, forcing tenants to leave. He won the lawsuit he filed against the government but received no compensation. When he went to higher authorities, he and his family were harassed, threatened and beaten. He and his wife divorced, hoping that the authorities would leave her alone.
In the following years, Mr. Gao worked odd jobs, devoting most of his time to his petition and his law studies. Life has become very difficult during the pandemic. Mr. Gao and his ex-wife, who still live together, had twins in January. He had four children, no job, no future. He was at the end of his nerves.
In February, Mr. Gao discovered posts on social media about Chinese arriving in the United States via the Darién Gap. He and his daughter applied for a passport, and a few weeks later they flew to Istanbul, then to Quito, the capital of Ecuador, where most Chinese would begin their journey to the United States.
Another migrant I spoke with who crossed the Darién Gap, Mr. Zhong, who wanted to use only his last name for fear of reprisals, has a similar background to Mr. Gao.
Born into a Christian family, he left a village in southwest China’s Sichuan province to join a middle-class city life. He trained as a chef at the age of 16 and worked in restaurants all over China. During the pandemic, he experienced financial difficulties. To pay his mortgage and car loan, around $800 a month, he worked on an assembly line in 2020.
The trouble for Mr. Zhong, now in his 30s, began last December when police stopped his car for a routine alcohol test and saw a copy of a Bible on the passenger seat. They told Mr. Zhong that he believed in an evil religion and threw the Bible to the ground and stomped on it. The officers then took his phone and installed an app on it which turned out to contain software to track his movements.
On Christmas Day, four police officers broke into a house where Mr. Zhong and three other Christians were holding a prayer service. They were taken to the police station, beaten and interrogated.
Like Mr. Gao, Mr. Zhong came across social media posts about the Darién Gap. He borrowed approximately $10,000 and left his home on February 22.
He said he cried three times. The first took place at the end of his first day in Darién Gap: he lay in his tent full of regrets, thinking that the journey was too hard. The second time he cried was during a three-day motorcycle ride with another Chinese migrant through Mexico in the pouring rain. He cried again when he was detained at an immigration center in Texas. He applied for asylum and didn’t know how long he would stay there. It might take three or five years, he thought. He was released after seven days and flew to New York.
When he arrived in Flushing, a neighborhood in Queens and a hub for Chinese immigrants, he was disappointed: The neighborhood was seedy and expensive. “I thought crossing the line was difficult,” he said in early April. “Starting a life here is even more difficult. »
Mr. Zhong soon moved to a town of 30,000 people in Alabama. He had grown up near Chengdu, a city of 20 million people. Now he felt really alone. He works at a Chinese restaurant 11 hours a day, he said, and doesn’t want to take a day off. He learned to cook General Tso’s Chicken and other Chinese-American dishes. The salary is much better than in China and he can send more money home. Every Sunday, he participates in an online church service, hosted by a church in Sunset Park in Brooklyn, another community with a large Chinese immigrant population.
He told me a joke over the phone: “Why did you go to the United States? » someone asks a Chinese immigrant. “Are you unhappy with your salary, your benefits and your life? » The immigrant replies: “Yes, I am satisfied. But in the United States, I will have the right to say that I am not satisfied.”
“I can live as a real human being in the United States,” he said.
Mr. Gao and his daughter settle in San Francisco. Life for them is not easy either. We first met in April at a community service center that had helped them find shelter, a high school gymnasium in the city’s Mission District.
They could stay there from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., sleeping on gym mats and carrying all their belongings during the day. Mr. Gao’s daughter started school two weeks after arriving in the city. He hoped she would one day be able to visit her mother in China.
They moved into a studio in a shelter. Then Mr. Gao got his work permit, bought a car and started delivering packages for an e-commerce company. He earns $2 per package. The more he delivers, the more he earns.
He repeatedly said how grateful he was for the kindness he had encountered since leaving China. He and his daughter were robbed, extorted and shot. But strangers gave them bottled water and food. After traveling for three days in an open wagon, he and his daughter met a Mexican couple who insisted they take a shower at their home.
One Wednesday in November, Mr. Gao said, he woke up at 4 a.m., delivered more than 100 packages and didn’t return home until after 9 p.m.
He took leave the next day. When Mr. Xi’s motorcade, who was in San Francisco for a meeting with President Biden, passed, Mr. Gao joined other protesters on the sidewalk, chanting in Chinese: “Xi Jinping, resign!”
Julie Turkewitz contributed to reporting from the Darién Gap, and Eileen Sullivan of Washington.