CHANGLE, Fujian — Smartly dressed in a Calvin Klein T-shirt, jeans and white trainers, the teenager props up a motorbike in Changle, a city in the southern Chinese province of Fujian. His hair flopping over sunglasses, he flashes a shy grin at the camera. Jin Xicai hardly resembles the stereotype refugee, desperately fleeing poverty and persecution. Yet within months of that photo, the 18-year-old would begin a tortuous 10-week escape across Russia and central Europe, only to perish one border short of his goal.

If his family’s fears are confirmed by British police, Jin was among the 56 Chinese immigrants who suffocated to death inside a tomato truck last week en route from Rotterdam to Dover.

“We haven’t slept for three nights,” said Jin’s father yesterday. His mother is inconsolable, crying in a corner of their home in a village outside Changle. “We just want to know if he is alive or dead,” his father said. “We can’t get news from anywhere, and we daren’t go to the police.”

Changle residents know better than anyone the risks and rewards of breaking emigration laws. One-third of the 500,000 strong population may have fled abroad in recent years. The area is the single largest source of “renshe” or “human snakes,” as the Chinese call the migrants who sneak out of China, their lives and liberty at the mercy of armed “snakeheads.” The latter have fled Changle ahead of a police crackdown and to avoid their clientele. “Now we can’t reach any of the snakeheads in Fujian or abroad,” complained Jin’s father.

The agonizing wait for information began when one of Jin’s cousins telephoned from England with news of the tragedy. Jin was set to join the 22-year-old working in a Chinese restaurant in the suburbs of London. Though most migrants set off with precious little in the way of foreign languages or savings, a vast network of extended families worldwide, mostly from Fujian, provides crucial support.

Over the past two days, police in Changle and neighboring counties have gone door-to-door inquiring about possible victims, but families like Jin’s are keeping silent. Only an official name-list of the dead will make them come forward. Relatives of other missing people have vowed not to give up hope until they see their loved one’s corpse.

Jin’s nightmare journey began April 3, the day he left Fujian on a two-day train ride to Beijing. The arrangements began to go awry as soon as he and other hopeful migrants reached the Chinese capital.

“The snakeheads tricked us!” says Jin’s grandfather. “They promised they would go to Europe by plane from Peking, but instead they went by train to Moscow.” By placing photographs of their human cargo inside genuine Chinese passports, procured from the black market at around 1,000 British pounds each, the snakeheads processed Russian transit visas. First hurdle cleared.

After a seven-day ride across Siberia, the group disembarked at the Russian capital into the custody of Moscow-based snakeheads and their local accomplices. Jin phoned home to reassure his family, although they were alarmed to learn that the snakeheads held them under armed guard. To prevent any thoughts of escape, the migrants’ documents, luggage and spare clothes were confiscated. For only if the group reached Britain would the snakeheads receive the full fee of 250,000 yuan per head.

From Russia westward, the journey grew more arduous. “They went by train, truck and even horse and cart,” explains Jin’s father. Whenever they reached a border, they got off and trekked over the mountains to avoid the guards.”

Jin phoned again from the Czech Republic, Germany and lastly Holland, where the group waited 20 days for the final and most perilous leg of the trip. He sounded desperate. “He said he never had enough to eat, and the snakeheads would not let them out of a small hotel,” recalls his grandfather.” Jin begged for money to be sent, and called back on June 10 to acknowledge receipt of $200, all his family could raise in a hurry.

And then silence, broken this week by the terrible fear that Jin died in the air-tight tomb. “We have only got one son,” says Jin’s father tearfully. His 11-year-old daughter sits quietly beside him, of lesser importance to the family line. She will be married off to another family, and her parents will lose her economic output.

They produce a series of family photos from happier times. Jin was a bright boy, and when he left school at 16 began an apprenticeship in Changle repairing mobile phones. But he and his family were anxious for greater returns.

“He wanted to make money,” explains his father. “There’s little work to do here in the fields, but in foreign countries you can earn much more.” Local estimates claim that Chinese migrants can clear $2,000 per month in the United States, compared to under 2,000 yuan back home. Britain offers slimmer but still substantial pickings, around 1,000 pounds per month.

Cost made Jin’s father choose Britain over the U.S., the most popular destination for Fujian migrants, including one of Jin’s uncles. “We are poor people, we couldn’t afford the 500,000 yuan fee for America,” double the cost to Britain. Poverty is always a relative term. Changle and other coastal regions of Fujian are far from being China’s most impoverished areas. Jin’s father drives an expensive VW Santana taxi he bought himself.

The traditional brick buildings in Jin’s village are increasingly overshadowed by new six-story mansions, complete with marble staircases and chandeliers. Every one was built with money sent back by relatives working abroad. The villagers who remain don’t even do much farming any more. The back-breaking work of seeding and harvesting paddy fields is left to farmers from Sichuan in the southwest, China’s most overcrowded province, who are eager to rent the available land.

Most families in the area are nervous of speaking to outsiders. Jin is not the missing boy’s real family name, and photos were not encouraged. Foreign journalists have been harassed and detained over the last two days, as local authorities are embarrassed to reveal the extent of the trade in human trafficking. Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Zhu Bangzao expressed China’s shock at the incident and condolences to the bereaved, as yet uninformed of their loss.

Yet at the same time as calling for greater international cooperation, Zhu criticized countries like the U.S., whose laws on political asylum give hope to Chinese migrants.

“The criminal groups are good at exploiting legal loopholes in certain countries that encourage people to apply for political asylum,” said Zhu. “China hopes these countries will wake up to the tragedy and will not provide opportunities to the criminals.”

Changle builder Liu Jiazhi has seen his business boom with the demand for new houses. He gives short shrift to any human-rights arguments migrants put forward. “Most Changle migrants don’t oppose the government or even the family planning policy. But when you get caught, your lawyer needs an excuse to let you stay in the U.S.” Local people have long called the prized green card that bestows residence the “June 4th card,” after the 1989 Tiananmen massacre.

The Dover tragedy is unlikely to stem the flow of illegal immigrants from China. Even Jin’s family say they would not dissuade others from trying. They still appear shell-shocked by the news, blaming only the senior snakeheads who would have ordered the change of plan from air to train and truck. “If only they had flown, everything would be fine, says Jin’s aunt, who seems to have accepted Jin’s fate.

Fujian has a long tradition of exporting Chinese labor and capital overseas. “For over 100 years, people from Fujian have successfully immigrated to other countries, including North America,” explains Susan Gregson, immigration counselor at the Canadian Embassy in Beijing. “Now their descendants think they can do the same.”

So many migrants are going, the interest rate from loan sharks has crashed from 3-4 percent two years ago to only 1 percent today. The average age is falling too, with the majority of migrants aged between 15 and 20. Once they reach their destination, issues of face prevent many Chinese from describing their plight. The Chinese saying “to return to one’s hometown in silken robes” remains the ideal for many.

“Those who have made their way abroad, even if they are working as slave labor, are not reporting a realistic picture about their lives,” says Gregson. “They worry they would lose their face, so they call home, saying everything is fine, without mentioning any hardships they go through. Then they just send money home, which may inspire more people to go.”

Recently Gregson accompanied Eleanor Caplan, Canada’s minister of citizenship and immigration to Fujian, to warn that only a miserable, possibly life-threatening journey, followed by deportation, awaited potential refugees. The British government may be forced to consider a similar effort, though the effectiveness of such warnings is doubtful.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.