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 through nine countries. By the time they touched down on American soil in late March, Mr. Gao had lost 15 pounds.
The most harrowing part of their journey was trekking through the brutal Panama jungle known as Darién Gap. On the first day, said Mr. Gao, 39, he had sunstroke. On the second day, his feet swelled. Dehydrated and weakened, he threw away his tent, a moisture-proof sleeping pad and a change of clothes.
Then his 13-year-old daughter got sick. She lay on the ground, vomiting, her face pale, her forehead feverish, her hands on her belly. Mr. Gao said he thought she might have drunk dirty water. Dragging themselves through the muddy, treacherous rainforests of the Darién Gap, they took breaks every 10 minutes. They arrived at their destination, a campsite in Panama, only at 9pm
Mr Gao said he felt he had no choice but to leave China.
“I think we will be safe just by coming to the United States,” he said, adding that he believes Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader, could lead the country to famine and perhaps war. “It’s a rare opportunity to protect me and my family,” he said.
Growing numbers of Chinese have entered the United States this year through the Darién Gap, surpassed only by Venezuelans, Ecuadorians and Haitians. second Panamanian immigration authorities.
It is a dangerous road, once used mainly by Cubans and Haitians and, to a lesser extent, by people from Nepal, India, Cameroon and Congo. The Chinese are fleeing the world’s second largest economy.
Educated, affluent Chinese are migrating through legal channels, such as education and work visas, to escape bleak economic prospects and political oppression – motivations shared by Darién Gap expats.
Most of them followed a playbook circulating on social media: cross the border through the Darién Gap, surrender to U.S. border control agents, be detained in immigration prisons and apply for asylum citing credible fear if returned to China. Many will be released within a few days. When their asylum applications are accepted, they will be able to work and start a new life in the United States.
Their escape is a referendum on Xi’s government, now in its third five-year term. Arguing that “the East is growing while the West is declining,” he said She said in 2021 that the Chinese governance model had proven superior to Western democratic systems and that the center of gravity of the world economy was shifting “from West to East”.
Every immigrant I interviewed this year who crossed the Darién Gap – a journey known as Zouxian, or walking the line, in Chinese – came from a lower-middle-class background. They said they fear they would fall into poverty if China’s economy worsened and that they could no longer see a future for themselves and their children in their home country.
In Xi’s China, anyone could become a target of the state. You could get in trouble for being Christian, Muslim, Uyghur, Tibetan or Mongolian. Or a worker demanding back pay, a homeowner protesting the delay in completing an unfinished apartment, a student using a virtual private network to access Instagram, or a Communist Party cadre being found with a copy of a banned book.
More than 24,000 Chinese migrants were temporarily detained at the U.S. southern border in fiscal 2023, according to the report. US Customs and Border Protection. In the previous decade, fewer than 15,000 Chinese migrants had been caught illegally crossing the southern border.
The emergence of desperate Chinese challenging the Darién Gap is the reversal of a long-standing pattern.
In the 1980s and 1990s, millions of Chinese emigrated to developed countries, including the United States, to achieve higher living standards and freer societies. When China’s economy took off in the early 2000s and the government lost some control over society, the vast majority of Chinese students returned to their country after graduation. 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 the assembly line of an electronics factory. I made about $100 a month. Through street smarts, Mr. Gao earned money by helping factories and construction sites hire workers.
In 2007 he rented land on the outskirts of Beijing and built a building divided into a hundred tiny rooms. He earned about $30,000 a year by renting them to migrant workers. He married, had two children and also moved his parents to Beijing.
In 2018, the local government wanted the land back for development. Mr. Gao refused. Authorities cut water and electricity and pumped toilet sewage into the courtyard, forcing tenants to leave. He won a lawsuit against the government but received no compensation. When he petitioned the 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 years that followed, Mr. Gao worked odd jobs, devoting most of his time to his petition and studying law. Life has become very tough during the pandemic. Mr Gao and his ex-wife, who still live together, had twins in January. He had four children and no job, no future. He didn’t know what to do anymore.
In February, Gao came across social media posts about Chinese reaching the United States through the Darién Gap. He and his daughter applied for passports and within a few weeks flew to Istanbul and then to Quito, the capital of Ecuador, where most Chinese were beginning their journey to the United States.
Another migrant I spoke to who crossed the Darién Gap, Mr. Zhong, who only wanted to use his last name for fear of retaliation, has a similar background to Mr. Gao.
Born into a Christian family, he made his way from a village in Sichuan province in southwest China to middle-class city life. He studied cooking at the age of 16 and worked in restaurants throughout China. During the pandemic, I struggled financially. To pay his mortgage and car loan, about $800 a month, he worked on an assembly line in 2020.
Trouble for Mr Zhong, now in his early 30s, began last December when police officers 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, threw the Bible on the ground, and stomped on it. The officers then took his phone and installed an app on it which turned out to have software capable of tracking his movements.
On Christmas Day, four police officers raided 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. I borrowed about $10,000 and moved out of the house on February 22nd.
He said he cried three times. The first occurred at the end of her first day on the Darién Gap: she lay in her tent full of regrets, thinking the journey was too hard. The second time she cried was during a three-day motorcycle trip with another Chinese migrant through Mexico in pouring rain. He cried again when he was detained at an immigration center in Texas. He asked for asylum and didn’t know how long he would stay there. It could be 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 squalid and expensive. “I thought toeing 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 truly alone. He works at a Chinese restaurant 11 hours a day, he said, and isn’t willing to take a day off. He learned to cook General Tso’s Chicken and other American Chinese dishes. The pay is much better than in China and he can send more money home. Every Sunday he attends an online church service hosted by a church in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park, another community with a large Chinese immigrant population.
On the phone he told me a joke: “Why did you go to the United States?” Someone asks a Chinese immigrant. “Are you unhappy with your pay, your benefits and your life?” The immigrant replies: “Yes, I am satisfied. But in the United States I will be allowed to say that I am not satisfied.”
“I can live like a real human being in the United States,” he said.
Mr. Gao and his daughter are settling in San Francisco. Life isn’t easy for them either. We first met in April at a community service center that had helped them find a shelter, a high school gym in the city’s Mission District.
They could stay there from 7pm to 7am, sleeping on gym mats and carrying all their belongings with them during the day. Mr. Gao’s daughter started school within two weeks of arriving in the city. She hoped that one day she would be able to visit her mother in China.
They moved into a studio apartment in a shelter. Then Mr. Gao got a work permit, bought a car and started delivering packages for an e-commerce company. He earns $2 per package. The more you offer, the more you earn.
He said several times how grateful he was for the kindness he had encountered since leaving China. He and his daughter were robbed, extorted and shot. But the strangers gave them bottled water and food. After traveling in an open car for three days, he and his daughter met a Mexican couple who insisted on taking 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 get home until after 9 p.m.
He took the next day off. As Xi’s motorcade passed, who was in San Francisco for a meeting with President Biden, Mr. Gao joined other protesters on the sidewalk, chanting in Chinese: “Xi Jinping, resign!”
Julie Turkewitz contributed reporting from the Darién Gap, e Eileen Sullivan from Washington.