Chinatown ’89: The New Chinese Exodus
October 31, 1989
OH, BY THE WAY, THEY ARE CRACKING DOWN. IF YOU run into anybody who needs a passport, don’t forget, I can get one.” Mr. Wu smiled from behind his desk, handing us the tickets for a June 1 flight from New York to China. He had a whole range of deals to offer: a passport issued by a Central American country for US $12,000, with the provision that the holder not go there; a similar passport with a visa to the United States for US $18,000; and, at the top end of the scale, a passport to be issued within two days for US $50,000, enabling the holder to reside in a South American country immediately. Interested parties, once smuggled out of China, were to contact him from Hong Kong. Who in China could come up with that kind of money?
“Plenty of people can afford it,” he laughed. “Private business is booming and corruption is all over the place. You’ll be surprised.” He had the assurance of someone who had processed at least a handful of cases. As to who would want a passport within two days, Mr. Wu had an unusual answer: “Someone who needs to get away in hurry. People in political trouble, like terrorists, maybe.”
His remarks turned out to be prophetic. We arrived in China on the day of the military crackdown in Beijing, and a whole group of people needed to get out. Indeed, it was probably networks of the type that Mr. Wu had been linked up with that saved the lives of some of the most prominent prodemocracy protesters. “Underground railroads,” operated by the so-called “snakeheads,” were instrumental in smuggling the “counterrevolutionaries” out of China. The incredible sum of $50,000 — in a country where annual per capita income is $300 — seemed like a small price to pay. Many outside supporters, particularly the people of Hong Kong, were more than willing to pick up the tab.
People have been leaving the People’s Republic of China since its inception. The first wave of well-to-do and well-educated émigrés, able to pay for a safe crossing, became the engine for Hong Kong’s economic boom in the 1950s, and the core of the now well-established professional class of Chinese Americans in the United States. In later decades, and particularly during the Cultural Revolution, the thoroughly “proletarianized” would-be escapees were mostly reduced to swimming across to Hong Kong from the surrounding areas in Guangdong Province. Most were disaffected young men who felt they were wasting their lives in the countryside. Quite a few have ended up as waiters in New York’s Chinatown.
When China opened her doors under Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s, new methods came into vogue. People with sufficient academic credentials were, once again, allowed to apply to foreign universities. Having a relative overseas became an asset. Searching for a potential “foreign relative” became an obsession of many young city dwellers. We were approached in 1980 by a mayor’s son and a daughter of a top-ranking diplomat, both in their early thirties, who asked for “our hands in double marriage,” to be dissolved once out of China so they could marry and live abroad. They belonged to the most privileged class in China, and it was hard to imagine why they would want to leave. Partly, it was out of curiosity about the outside world. Partly, the decision reflected their understanding of what the West was: a place where they could indulge their expensive tastes and fulfill material needs without ideological obstruction.
The young woman was lucky to marry an unsuspecting Englishman. For a year she phoned and wrote back to China about her life in Great Britain, mentioning a cassette player, a motorbike, and other things that her husband bought for her. Then she decided she was not going to divorce him after all.
Several artists we know cultivated their “foreign relations” for years so as to eventually land a spouse. For them, going abroad meant the opportunity to express their individual sensibility freely. One painter simply wanted to make abstract paintings after years of socialist realism and revolutionary romanticism. Another hoped to be able to exhibit his politically satirical sculpture. Filmmakers were dreaming of rich, appreciative patrons — no more government-approved movies.
A successful actress in her mid-twenties cannot stand working with directors who are bound by the style of the 1940s. “What can they say about the feelings and problems of the young in the 1980s?” she asks. “These people can’t come up with anything new, and they prevent others from doing it because they feel threatened. So I just get paid to sit at the studio doing nothing.” A 70-year-old holistic enthusiast from Southern California agreed to marry her, but the Party official at her work unit refused to grant permission.
In China, the Party has a final say in matters that are considered private in the West, such as marriage and birth. Even dating is often arranged under the good auspices of a concerned Party secretary. The Party has taken over the traditional role of the family. Only, if the family arranges a marriage, it is seen as a vestige of feudalism; if the Party does it, it’s a social responsibility. A woman still unmarried at 25 cannot be left to her own resources. Our friend who refused two suggested candidates after two arranged dates in 1979 knew she would get only one more chance before she was perceived as a social problem.
Because of the population problem, childbirth is very much under Party control. When we asked a young college assistant professor and his wife in Shanghai this summer whether they were planning to have a kid, he said: “Well, we missed our quota last year, so now we have to wait.” The wife explained: “There are too many young couples in our neighborhood, and the neighborhood committee can only allow so many childbirths a year.” Actually, they didn’t even think they wanted a child. “China is so backward,” she said looking around the one-room apartment, “and we are so crowded — these are no conditions for a child.”
HOUSING, JOB ALLOCATION, salary increases, and promotion are also in the hands of the Party. Rather than worrying about professional problems and job performance, many talented employees have to spend time cultivating useful connections to make life a little easier.
Chen Yixin, a first-rate electronics engineer and inventor of audio equipment from Beijing, disliked playing politics and got tired of being ordered around by incompetent and jealous supervisors. When the door opened in 1980, he joined his brother in California to work as a TV repairman. Although settling for a humbler job, he hasn’t regretted leaving the brutalizing day-to-day struggle behind. “Chinese society rewards the informers and the sycophants, while the talented get persecuted. I never got a reward for anything I did. Now, at least, I make money when I work hard. I can do whatever I want in my free time.”
Expressing one’s individual taste and style is the meaning of freedom for many in China. They proudly exhibit their sound systems and collections of foreign tapes, announcing defiantly: “I like Taiwanese music,” or “This kind of love song suits my mood.” When they envy the freedom of Westerners, they don’t think of the right to be involved politically. They seek to leave China in order to be left out of politics — to be left alone.
Wang Degong is a high school science teacher from Shanghai we’ve known for years. He applied to join his sisters in Canada in 1980, but discovered that Canada had no use for high school teachers who spoke no English. He then applied, in 1982, for an immigration visa to the U.S. through his brother-in-law, pledging to wash dishes if need be. We were curious why he wanted to leave China so badly. “You don’t know,” he said. “I’m scared to death of movements.” He was referring to the political movements he had to live through in forty-odd years.
We met him again in mid-June of this year, some time after the military crackdown in Beijing. He was still waiting for his visa, and still spoke no English. But, somehow, this time his plight seemed plausible. China was embarking on a new “movement,” and who could blame him for not wanting any part in it? By the time we left Shanghai he knew he’d have to spend the month of July, after school gets out, in daily study-group sessions with other teachers in his school. The aim would be to “unify their thought,” namely their understanding of the pro-democracy movement. In practice this would mean that after reading “Chairman Deng’s Speech,” which condemned the movement as counterrevolutionary, they would all have to express their complete agreement with the condemnation, and confess to any aberrations that may have occurred in their thoughts or actions during the demonstrations. They would have to report on other people’s “mistaken” demonstration support, and hope that no one reported them.
Psychological pressure has been the bottom line of all political movements in China. The Communist Party mobilizes the people through “consciousness-raising,” pitting one segment of the population against another, so as to leave the Party in full control. One of the best-publicized cases during the recent arrests in Beijing involved a sister who turned in her student-brother, presumably to protect her own family from being implicated. It’s something Western observers have trouble comprehending. But seeing it lauded throughout the media gave the Chinese citizens a signal — the manipulation of fear is once again being used by the government.
Only this time, the Party is more desperate and violent. Its present attempt to achieve ideological unity is “ludicrous,” according to Ai Min, the daughter of a very high Party official. “There is no legitimacy in this leadership’s claim on morality.” Intelligent and confident of her capability to think for herself, Ai Min is one of the few Chinese who have had the opportunity, or the guts, to change jobs several times, so as not to be stuck with work that is not challenging. Her present job, which brings her into frequent contact with foreigners, provides a high income and the possibility of traveling abroad. She never thought of leaving China in the past — she believed that the reforms of the 1980s needed people like her, who found satisfaction in doing their jobs well.
But now that’s become irrelevant. Ai Min doesn’t want to be manipulated into phony self-criticism, nor to take part in the drive for ideological conformity. She is angry that the Party expects her to stop being a thinking individual. Although she trusts that the fascist regime will eventually collapse, she doesn’t feel like wasting her most productive years waiting for that to happen. She admits that she would like to leave China now.
NOBODY WE ENCOUNTERED IN CHINA in the weeks following the Beijing massacre denied that they would like to leave. “If our government were to open up the border, not one person would be left in China,” mused Bing, our taxi driver, as he weaved through Shanghai’s traffic, avoiding the plainclothes policemen on our track. “All government officials send their children abroad. Why should the people be stupid enough to want to stay?” What bothered him the most was the official corruption. “The harder I work, the more ways they find to squeeze me,” he complained, revealing that he had been paying $400 under the table at each yearly inspection of his vehicle to the official who wielded the rubber stamp. “Hah, money means nothing in China if you don’t have the official connection. You are still nobody.”
Like many other private entrepreneurs whom we met this summer, he was applying for a student visa to Australia. With a policy granting student visas to all foreigners who pay $5000 for a semester of language courses at an accredited institution, Australia had become the preferred destination for the Chinese who have the money, but not the connections or qualifications to leave any other way. They hope to permanently settle abroad. “I’d be willing to do anything to stay out of China,” Bing contemplated. “I’ve done manual work all my life, what do I have to be afraid of?”
By the end of June, however, the Chinese government announced that all the Chinese exit visas would have to be reissued. Bing was concerned that he may no longer have a chance to leave. So were many students who had already gained admission to respectable foreign universities. In the July issue of the Bulletin of High Education, Beijing authorities announced new criteria for issuing exit visas: from now on the political attitude of the applicants would be stressed. According to diplomatic sources, students currently being given clearance to leave are not the first-rate ones interested in science or technology, but mainly second-rate English majors from provincial universities. The consequences are already being felt in America: new Chinese students have been typically applying to lesser-known, smaller schools. What matters, according to a Chinese National Education Commission official commenting on the situation in the China Daily a few days ago, is that students profess patriotism and desire to serve their country.
The new policy appears to be a direct response to the almost universal condemnation of the government by the large expatriate student community. Many of the 800,000 Chinese who have studied abroad during the past 10 years have not gone back. The recent move of foreign governments allowing Chinese students to overstay their visas is certain to deprive China of a whole generation of her best minds — a double tragedy for China, which already lost a generation to the Cultural Revolution. There are 70,000 such students in the United States alone. They will eventually have to go back, unless they acquire a foreign passport.
Only, sometimes, even that is not enough. Hong Kong’s 3.25 million Chinese residents who hold British passports will not be allowed to settle permanently in Great Britain after the colony reverts to China in 1997. They will automatically become Chinese subjects. Both Britain and China went through pains to instill confidence in the principle stipulated by the Basic Law, to be implemented upon reversion: one country, two systems. The law was designed to ensure maximal autonomy for Hong Kong in its first 50 years under Chinese rule. In the wake of the military crackdown in Beijing, however, Hong Kong residents cynically compare the future of the territory to the present predicament of Tibet.
Hong Kong is certainly no Tibet today, but the recent events have shown just how fragile prosperity can be. On June 5, the Hong Kong stock market lost over 1000 points, or 37 per cent of its value. Similar losses in the value of real estate measured tens of billions of U.S. dollars. A run on mainland-owned banks depleted them of US $2.1 billion in the first three days after the massacre. Hong Kong journalist Liu Huiqing asks: “Can the Hong Kong people restrain their anguish, anger, and disillusionment to work constructively for the future?”
Many residents have, in fact, responded by participating in public protests, demonstrations, strikes, and vigils. The most committed intend to battle for democratic institutions and broader participation in politics for the people of Hong Kong. But they realize that the destiny of Hong Kong cannot be separated from that of China. “We can only have democracy if China has democracy. Our effort will have to be a part of the larger Chinese struggle,” explains Danny Yung, a Hong Kong artist and activist, and a former resident of New York City.
The Chinese government appears apprehensive of this new interest in people’s power and human rights in Hong Kong. The Chinese State Council official in charge of Hong Kong affairs announced: “We will not tolerate anybody using Hong Kong or Macao as a base to subvert the government of the People’s Republic.”
IT IS NOT CLEAR what the Chinese government intends to do, but most people don’t feel like waiting around to find out. Immigration applications to even the most obscure places are up, and passport sales are booming. Many consular officials reportedly engage in sales of genuine passports through intermediaries for as little as US $5000. A fake passport costs US $1400 to $3000, depending on how urgently it’s needed. There is no guarantee that one will succeed in entering a foreign country with it, but a Hong Kong resident remarks: “My chances are better with a fake passport than if I apply for an immigration visa.”
The Chinese exodus has become a big business, with almost the whole world a market. But nearly all people fleeing both mainland China and Hong Kong would like to come to the United States. The myth of the promised land is still very much alive. Hong Kong residents know quite well where they are headed, even if only from movies and encounters with foreign tourists. For many mainlanders, however, America is simply a better place: “the beautiful country,” as its name in Chinese reads. “Are the roads abroad much better than in China?” inquired a private chauffeur of a Chinese dignitary, adding: “I know your cars are much better.” Then, as if though pondering the reason for the unequal prosperity, he concluded: “You must have decollectivized your land much earlier than China.”
While America may be a better place, many of the new immigrants will end up in Chinatowns, settling for sub-minimum wages, intensifying the competition for jobs and housing, driving real estate values even higher. George, a young New York–based Chinatown developer, delights in the prospect: “I’ll make enough money by 1997 to retire.” For the community residents, however, the new wave of immigrants means that the already depleted community resources will be overstrained. Even more worrisome is the chilling effect of the Beijing massacre — which stripped the affable mask from the face of the Chinese government — on previously enthusiastic Americans. Many Chinese Americans fear that the interrupted honeymoon in Sino-American relations may negatively affect their treatment by other Americans — an experience still vividly remembered from the Korean and Cold War years.
The new arrivals do not share such concerns. “Don’t call me Yaping, my name is Edward,” insists a Chinese college student to his Chinese-American friends. “I’m no longer Chinese. I’m an American now.” His identity change reflects the popular hatred for the Chinese government, and a conviction that the new land will reward his determination. ■