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Chinese dream fails: the middle class escape to the west

President Xi Jinping’s message to Chinese people everywhere is crisp: “tell China’s story well.” All organs of the Communist Party of China (CPC) have been harnessed not only in pursuit of the ‘Chinese Dream of National Rejuvenation’ but to also persuade the greatest possible number, both at home and abroad, that this virtuous goal is almost within Beijing’s grasp. In June 2023 alone, four major international forums were held in China to roll out the government’s vision for global human rights governance, promoting China’s cultural strengths, making the CPC more likeable, and for world peace.

It should, therefore, strike a dissonant chord to read increasing reports about Chinese citizens, of all social classes and wealth levels, leaving China permanently for foreign countries. None of Beijing’s publicity measures seem to have sweetened the reality for the wealthy Chinese who have been leaving China in droves, especially since the onset of Covid-19, to keep the government from enforcing its vision of honesty, austerity, and patriotism upon them.

But, what should be even more surprising is that even Xi Jinping’s pro-poor policies and claims of having eradicated extreme poverty are losing their sheen as an ever-growing wave of low-income Chinese citizens is leaving behind their homeland in search of better opportunities in the West, particularly the United States. As per the United Nations refugee agency, there were 116,868 Chinese seeking asylum around the world in mid-2022, up from 15,362 at the end of 2012, when Xi Jinping became President for the first time.

Escaping Economic Constraints

China’s rapid economic growth has lifted millions out of poverty, but the benefits have not reached everyone equally. Low-income citizens often find themselves grappling with the consequences of income inequality and limited socio-economic mobility. With restricted access to well-paying jobs and the increasing cost of living, many see migration as a way to break free from the cycle of financial struggles. Securing stable employment is a significant hurdle for low-income individuals in China. A fiercely competitive job market, dominated by Chinese state-owned enterprises and conglomerates, can limit opportunities for those with fewer resources or lower levels of education. As a result, they often face underemployment or are trapped in precarious work arrangements that fail to provide a sustainable

livelihood. Motivated by economic hardships and aspirations for a brighter future, these individuals are defying the odds and venturing into the unknown.

Seeking a Promising Future

The allure of the West lies in the promise of a better standard of living. Low-income Chinese citizens see Western countries as a haven of opportunities, where hard work and determination can yield rewards. The potential for higher wages, social welfare benefits, access to quality education and healthcare, and a more inclusive society motivate them to take the leap and pursue their dreams thousands of miles away from home.

The Chinese taking the Latin America route to the US are increasingly those with low incomes and education levels, who would otherwise be unable to secure a US visa through normal channels. Many lost their livelihood in the coronavirus pandemic, squeezed to financial ruin under Xi Jinping’s draconian and politically motivated Zero Covid Policy. Several others have had traumatic encounters with Chinese authorities and given up hopes of personal liberty under the present regime.

A Perilous Journey

But, the journey is not without its hardships. The dream of starting a life in the US is fraught with challenges and risks. Traveling through multiple countries, these migrants often rely on unofficial channels and face perilous routes, human smugglers, and dangerous border crossings. The physical and emotional toll of the journey, coupled with language barriers and unfamiliar environments, put their resilience and determination to the test. Challenges such as cultural adaptation, foreign language, and limited social networks also await them.

Nevertheless, the US government’s own statistics show that the number of Chinese refugees is growing exponentially. Between October 2022 and February 2023, US Customs and Border Protection agents apprehended 4,271 Chinese nationals along the southwest border, a 12 times increase year-on-year. And the trend is unlikely to change as data from the Syracuse University shows that Chinese asylum seekers in the US have been among the groups with the highest acceptance rate, 67 percent, in recent decades.

The exodus of low-income Chinese citizens from their homeland in pursuit of a better life in the US reflects their resilience, resourcefulness, and unwavering determination. Unlike in the past, when the Chinese refugees were fleeing famine, crushing poverty and violent political turmoil, it is the search for greater freedom from an authoritarian state and genuine prosperity that seems to be inspiring them today. While their journey is filled with challenges and uncertainties, their pursuit of a promising future underscores the universal human desire for a better life.

Dangers of Infiltration

Before concluding, a darker aspect of this journey is also worth considering. The Chinese State has stepped up its mass political indoctrination over the last decade. The CPC’s United Front Work Department, domestic and foreign intelligence organs, and police authorities not only surveil and cultivate citizens at home but have penetrated overseas Chinese communities to a large degree. Experts have already sounded an alarm over the possibility that mixed among the refugees could be agents of the Chinese State infiltrating Western democracies. They would serve as tools of Beijing’s “long-arm” extra-territorial coercion, intimidating genuine asylum seekers and illegally forcing dissidents to return to China. In the event of an outbreak of war with the US and its allies, these agents could carry out acts of physical sabotage from within to sow panic and chaos among the civilian population. Therefore, it would be prudent for host governments to keep in mind that Xi Jinping’s China is unlikely to turn a blind eye to the refugees who embarrass the CPC and contradicts its narratives. Beijing would rather use their vulnerability to turn the situation to its own advantage.