The illegal immigrants come seeking higher wages, steady employment and a chance at better lives for their families. They cross the border in remote stretches where there are no fences or they pay traffickers to sneak them past border guards.
Then they work as maids, harvest crops or toil hunched in sweatshops.
As familiar as this sounds, this is not the United States or Europe, but China, which is attracting an increasing number of undocumented workers to fill the bottom rungs of its booming economy. Tens of thousands of foreigners from Southeast Asia, North Korea and even faraway Africa are believed to be working here illegally.
Among the most active areas for the furtive crossings is China’s 800-mile southern borders with Vietnam, whose people are drawn by jobs in China that may pay twice as much as they do at home.
“People are struggling for money in Vietnam. They look at China and think it’s rich,” said Anh Bang, a 23-year-old Vietnamese clothing merchant who travels legally to China several times a month but empathizes with those who enter without documents. “In China they can find a job easily and earn so much more.”
Labor shortages in China’s export-heavy eastern coastal regions are driving demand for foreign workers. So are Chinese workers’ calls for higher wages, which are cutting into employers’ profits.
“This is an economic phenomenon,” said Zhang Wenshan, a professor of law at Guangxi University who has studied the rise of illegal workers. “It’s globalization. Labor costs are increasing in China. This is hard on employers who don’t necessarily need sophisticated laborers. So a lot of foreigners are motivated to come here.… It’s like how many Chinese have gone to the U.S. to seek better lives.”
It’s an unlikely reversal for a country that until recently seemed to have an endless supply of cheap labor. But rapid development and urbanization are just as quickly raising workers’ expectations. Young, rural Chinese have fled the farms for cities. Factory workers are choosing to strike rather than accept minimal pay. In their wake they’re leaving openings that foreign workers are eager to fill.
With their numbers still relatively small and China’s economy growing rapidly, illegal immigrants so far haven’t been the lightning rod that they are in the United States. China has no social safety net to speak of, so there’s no resentment of immigrants using public services.
Still, tensions are growing. The Chinese government, historically wary of foreigners, has granted permanent residency to only a few thousand migrants in the last three decades. Sporadic roundups of illegal workers are on the rise. Friction between authorities and African merchants exploded into a riot last year in the southern city of Guangzhou after police were accused of harassment.
Controlling the influx of illegal workers isn’t easy, even for an authoritarian state. China shares a border with 14 countries. The nation famous for its Great Wall has virtually no fencing or barriers along this boundary, which stretches 13,670 miles through tropical forests, mountains and deserts.
“Beijing will start worrying if they’re not worrying already,” said Demetri Papademetriou, president of the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute. “But no country that reaches the status of China’s economy doesn’t go through this.”
For many Vietnamese, the quest for the Chinese Dream often begins in border communities such as Aidian, a shabby village of 8,500 in the province of Guangxi, an under-developed region along the border with Vietnam.
On a recent rainy afternoon, two young men wearing basketball jerseys sat on plastic stools on the Chinese side of the border collecting 10,000 Vietnamese dong, about 50 cents, from a steady flow of people entering from the Vietnamese side. The visitors showed no documents, even though a passport and visa are required by law. The men collecting the entrance fees declined to say whom they worked for.
Wei Haiguang, a contractor whose business is just up the street from the border crossing, said corruption in the region was endemic. He said friends of his had helped guide Vietnamese workers into China at the bidding of employment agents, who pay about $30 for each laborer. Most of the foreigners are young, 17 to 20 years old.
The government “won’t ever be able to control the border,” said Wei, a stocky 38-year-old wearing Buddhist bracelets and an ivory pendant. “There’s too many small roads and passes. Besides, who else is going to work in the fields?”
The job of Chinese authorities is particularly challenging here because it’s tough to tell who’s who. Members of the Zhuang ethnic minority group dominate parts of Guangxi and share a heritage and a distinct language with natives of northern Vietnam. Many Vietnamese also speak Cantonese, which helps them navigate the factory towns of Guangdong, where the language is the native tongue.
“There’s really no big difference between the Vietnamese and us,” said Qin Zhongjiang, who runs a health center in Chongzuo, a city 40 miles from the border whose central bus station often serves as a pick-up point for undocumented workers.
Chinese farmer Lu Qixue hires Vietnamese laborers before the autumn sugar cane harvest. For as long as five grueling months, the foreign workers put in 10-hour days thwacking sugar cane stalks with scythes.
“They work slowly and we always have to train them, but we can’t find enough skilled Chinese,” said Lu, a rail-thin 58-year-old village chief with gravelly stubble. “If we don’t hire the Vietnamese we won’t be able to grow as much.”
A capable Chinese worker is paid about $9 a day. A Vietnamese hire gets just over $5. Lu said he has no choice but to rely on the illegal help because his three sons have no interest in working the fields. Two are contractors and one is a taxi driver.
“I don’t want to carry sugar cane down the mountain,” said his youngest son, Lu Xinghuan, 26, who aspires to own a trucking company. “It’s hard work.”
Labor activists said the increasing use of undocumented foreigners is undermining gains made with China’s 2008 labor law regulating working hours and workplace conditions.
“These [foreign] workers have no legal protection at all and are often complicit with their employers in keeping their presence out of sight of the authorities,” said Geoffrey Crothall, a spokesman for China Labor Bulletin. “If they are discovered they will be sent straight back to Vietnam unless the boss pays off the police. We have seen the same situation with child labor in the past.”
Officially, businesses that hire undocumented aliens are fined as much as $7,352. Workers are fined $147 and face deportation.
Despite the crackdowns it remains to be seen whether illegal immigration will spark much resentment among the Chinese. Zhu Guanqiao, a restaurant owner from Guangzhou, was in Guangxi province recently on his way to a vacation in Vietnam. Waiting to cross the border with his 10-year-old son, he said he sympathized with the Vietnamese workers.
“Everyone has to eat,” said Zhu, 38, standing near a border gate in the Chinese city of Pingxiang. “The Vietnamese are poor and their living standards are lower than ours. We’re a richer country now. If they come here just to work, I think we should let them.”