As Dutch and British courts try suspects for the manslaughter of 58 illegal Chinese immigrants last June, Calum MacLeod meets the families chasing snakehead shadows. FUJIAN, China — Winter days are quiet for the people of Lianfeng, a small village on a finger of land poking into the East China Sea. Their terraced fields still await the spring planting of rice, sweet potatoes and peanuts. But on one slope, the earth has recently been broken. Dusty with chalk from the simple tombstone, a middle-age woman named Chen Suiying weeps at the grave of her son, buried on Jan. 19 this year. And again on Jan. 20.

Chen Suiying grieves at the tomb of her son Lin Yifen in Lianfeng village, Fujian Province. Lin suffocated in a tomato truck bound for England, and a better life, last June.

When the farmer’s wife accuses local police of collaborating with the human traffickers, or “snakeheads,” who killed her son, few of her neighbors dispute the truth of her charge. But in China many truths are safer left unsaid. Enraged by her candor, police prevented Chen from viewing her son at his burial. So the next day, she dug up his corpse.

“He looked like his photo,” Chen recalls, “except a tooth had come through his lip, and his face was black. I guess the blood had gone to his head.” She dressed his naked body in a black suit, and reburied him in a cedar-wood coffin. “The Chinese government wants to bury the issue,” she adds bitterly, “just like the bodies in the ground, so this ‘problem’ is resolved.”

But the problem remains far from resolved. Trapped inside a tomato truck packed with human contraband, Chen’s 20-year-old son died in pitch-black terror 10,000 km from home. If the suffocation of 58 illegal immigrants in a Dover-bound truck shocked Britain last June, the tragedy devastated dozens of communities in south China’s Fujian Province.

The manslaughter trials of 11 suspects continue in England and Holland, and Chinese police claim to have caught the ringleader, yet victims’ relatives believe he is no more than a minor link in the people-moving chain. And all the while, thousands of other young Chinese risk their lives to pursue riches overseas.

In the villages of coastal Fujian, China’s top exporter of cheap labor, the bereaved families are united in mourning for their dead and despair at the loss of future livelihood. Sons provide the only pension for China’s peasants, and 54 of the Dover victims were male. Chen’s husband has been forced out of retirement onto a construction site in the provincial capital of Fuzhou, to clear the debts they took on for their son’s fateful journey.

Shared sorrow: (from left) the mother of Lin Mingkun, the mother of Lin Tongyong (see photo below) and the widow of Lin Tonghui, Nanzhuang village, Fujian Province.

The families’ hatred of the snakeheads, who bungled the last stage of their relatives’ escape from China, is matched only by their frustration at the Chinese government. Local authorities offered no support or information, they say, and have failed to catch the criminals who took their money. Their anger would be greater if they knew of Beijing’s stubborn refusal to pay for repatriation of the corpses, thus breaking an unwritten diplomatic convention.

The dispute dragged out the families’ grief for seven months, until London conceded and British taxpayers footed the bill to fly the Dover dead home. Lin Aifang heard the plane land at 3:40 a.m. on Jan. 19. None of her family had slept for days, but at least their grief would soon have a focus. Her brother Lin Guoliang, a 30-year-old carpenter, was one of the dead and his relatives had feared he would be cremated on distant soil.

At 1:30 a.m., a local official visited Lin’s home in Longfeng village, close to Changle airport. Eager to draw a veil over the episode, the official warned the family that all relatives were barred from the airport. He repeated the government diktat mandating cremation or burial of all 58 bodies within eight hours of arrival. Lin’s family must await their slot at the local crematorium. A maximum of 20 relatives would be allowed no more than 10 minutes with the corpse. “We’ve got 35 people who want to see him, and we will all go!” Lin Aifang said.

She would come to regret her stubbornness. Later that morning, Lin commandeered two minibuses to transport all 35 members of her extended family. At the Beisan crematorium, police and Communist Party functionaries guarded the 24 coffins of victims from the Changle area. Staff briskly walked weeping relatives past the body of Lin’s brother, placed out of reach inside an iron-barred cage. Once 20 people were counted in, one mourner was pressured into signing a consent form he could barely read. By the time Lin’s 74-year-old mother shuffled past the cage, a different corpse lay on the slab. Her son had already been processed.

“These people have no humanity,” complains Lin, as her mother wails in the next-door bedroom. Her sister-in-law is too traumatized to speak. “It was not easy to bring the bodies back, but my mother still didn’t have a last chance to see her son. Nor did my 5-year-old nephew see his father. If this was how they were going to handle it, why not just bring the ashes back?”

Dictatorship breeds a paranoid fear of the people, and worry that high emotions could excite public anger. If sheer embarrassment also accelerated the rush to bury the issue, the international loss of face for Beijing may trigger tighter controls.

Lin Si’en and his wife, of Nanzhuang village, Fujian Province, visit the grave of their son, Lin Tongyong, a victim of the Dover disaster.

In late January, police announced the arrest of “well-known snakehead” Chen Xiaokong, caught with drugs in a Fujian disco, but relatives doubt that Chen is the Dover linchpin. “The police catch small snakeheads and say they are big,” protests Lin Si’en, who lost his 19-year-old son in the Dover disaster. “We caught two snakeheads ourselves. But the main ones have definitely fled abroad.”

Lin and three other families have taken the fight against the snakeheads into their own hands. Yet they were not always so hostile to the people-traffickers and their seductive promises. Snakeheads have left their calling cards in countless villages along the Fujian coast. Standing four, five or even six stories high, sheathed in shiny tiles and decorated with chandeliers, the houses of successful emigrants are garish proof of the potential rewards.

At least 20 of 60 households in Lin’s village of Nanzhuang, south of Fuqing City, have hired snakeheads to smuggle family members abroad in recent years. “Look over there,” Lin points to the building site that casts a growing shadow over his own roughly built home. A neighbor who spent the equivalent of $18,000 to reach Japan three years ago is now spending $36,000 on a four-story symbol of success. “We wanted to build a new house like everyone else,” says Lin, trying to calm his sobbing wife as she picks through their son’s old toys.

With the fruits of illegal immigration all around him, the farmer was an easy sell for the middleman who approached him in January last year. Lin was chatting with friends Lin Tonghui and Lin Siyi at the latter’s dough-cake stall. (In China’s villages, where most of the population still lives, many families share the same surname.) “It was raining, and we had nothing else to do,” Lin remembers, when local tractor driver Lin Tongcai dropped by with a proposition that would change their lives forever.

“Would you or your sons like to go to Holland?” he asked. “We can get you real passports, and you can earn several thousand yuan a month there.” Although Fujian Province compares favorably with many parts of inland China, average rural incomes are still only $389 a year. Like the three older men, Lin Siyi’s 21-year-old son was hooked. “I want to go, Dad, I can earn money too!” his father recalls him shouting.

That night, the three men went home to their wives and debated the plan. The following day, they each paid an initial deposit of $600 to Lin Tongcai, who introduced them to his brother, one step deeper into the underworld proper. The snakehead demanded $4,200 more on delivery of passports, and a further $18,000 when the human cargo reached the promised land. Their fates were sealed.

In retrospect, it appears a tragically foolhardy decision. At the time, it seemed even more foolish to spurn a ticket to an almost guaranteed fortune, by local standards. There was peer pressure too, the desire to keep up with one’s neighbors. The $4,800 up front was a down payment on a brighter future, a better house at the very least. Lin Tongcai even supplied receipts. “I have sent my own two sons to Holland,” Lin assured them. “It’s completely legal and safe.”

His clients had little cause to doubt him. “He was one of us,” Lin Si’en explains. “Look, you can see his house from over here.” Depicted as ruthless manipulators by the Chinese police and Western media, snakeheads are an accepted part of the social fabric in certain regions of China, their services in great demand.

To eradicate this grassroots network is a near-impossible task for the Chinese authorities. At the other end of the scale, there is no single mastermind behind a transcontinental business worth over $3.5 billion a year worldwide. Several groups organized the illegal journeys across Asia and Europe that converged in the Netherlands last June.

Some Chinese argue that there are few viable alternatives to these “gray routes,” since legal channels are closed to visa applicants from migration hot spots like Fujian. For centuries, the province has shipped its manpower round the globe, but since China eased restrictions on emigration in 1985, residents of three cities close to Fuzhou have shown particular desperation to see the world. So many people from Changle, Fuqing and Lianjiang have infringed immigration procedures that the cities are blacklisted by most Western countries.

The embargo can have deadly results. When the U.S. Embassy refused the work-visa application of Lin Aifang’s brother in April 2000, the rejection pushed him into the snakehead layer. In the same village, Lin Changhuan tearfully holds up his son’s certificates, “National Computer Examination Grade 2” and an “Outstanding Student” award. But the 22-year-old was not outstanding enough for the British Embassy to grant a student visa in 1999. “We’ll fly him direct to the United Kingdom,” a snakehead promised his father, “and take him right to college.”

Lin readily paid a $6,000 deposit, with $23,000 to follow on arrival in England, but he grew nervous once the process got abruptly under way last June. Lin’s snakehead contact instructed him to take his son, Lin Faming, to the local airport within 90 minutes of his call. From Changle, Lin Faming flew to Beijing, where snakeheads gathered a small group bound for Europe and issued Chinese passports stamped with Yugoslav visas.

While their applications may have been doctored to disguise their Fujian origins, at least some of the migrants exited China with genuine travel documents. Deflecting criticism that it condones the migrant tide, Beijing insists that many migrants leave China legally, typically to Yugoslavia, whereupon third countries encourage asylum seekers by granting bogus requests. Fiercely denying illegality, the families of the Dover dead cling to unconvincing stories that their relatives were traveling for legitimate business reasons or family reunions.

Lin Faming then flew to Belgrade, while other migrants he would meet in the Dover-bound truck endured a more tortuous route, via the weeklong Trans-Siberian railway from Beijing to Moscow. When Lin called home from a snakehead safe house in Belgrade, his father sensed fear. “The snakeheads tricked us,” his son told him. “They took away my passport.” Others called home relaying their minders’ requests for extra money.

Their Chinese papers were swapped for forged Korean and other foreign passports. From Yugoslavia, the migrants were moved in separate parties through Hungary, Austria and France to the Netherlands. Others traversed Russia, Poland, the Czech Republic and Germany, often traveling at night, by train, truck, even horse and cart, and sometimes on foot over remote border crossings.

Lin Aifang’s brother had left Fujian on June 8. He phoned once from Yugoslavia, then again early on June 18. “He said he was in Holland,” recalls his sister, “but he didn’t say he was going to England.” Just a few hours later, in a Rotterdam warehouse, he and 59 other Fujianese were herded into a secret compartment inside the container truck, partially loaded with tomatoes, and driven to the ferry at Zeebrugge, Belgium.

Their final moments were relived in an English court this month by the two migrants who survived. The snakeheads had left their cargo just four buckets of water and a tray of tomatoes for the five-hour trip — they would be fined for eating any other tomatoes. These meager provisions barely lasted an hour, and then the air too began to run out. To muffle any sound, the Dutch driver had shut the container’s only air vent. Despite temperatures of up to 32 degrees C, the lorry’s cooling unit was also switched off.

On an upper deck, the driver enjoyed a meal and a movie, while his passengers fought for breath and shed clothing to relieve the heat. “We all started to bang the side of the container, shouting and screaming for help. But none came,” testified 20-year-old Ke Sudi, one of the last to be crammed inside. “I lost consciousness and the next thing I can remember is being pulled from the back of the lorry by men in uniform.”

A family friend in London telephoned Lin Aifang on June 19 with news of the grisly discovery by Dover customs officers. For weeks Lin’s family clung to the belief that her brother was still in Holland, but the silence was terrifying. British and Chinese police struggled to identify the dead, as relatives were reluctant to come forward and none of the bodies bore any travel papers. But from mid-July, photos of the corpses were displayed in several Fujian County towns. Lin Guoliang was No. 15.

His sister found some comfort meeting the families of other victims. And jealousy when she encountered the mother of one of the survivors. “They were on top of the tomatoes, near the doors,” believes Lin, “that’s why they survived, but the mother won’t tell us any more. She’s worried the British will send her son back.” Retribution from the underworld could be a greater threat, after the survivors testified against the snakeheads to earn immunity from prosecution and leave to remain in Britain for four years. Their request for political asylum had been rejected.

The families of those who died have lost their fear of the snakeheads, and of the Chinese authorities. Yet their government is showing unusual restraint. Despite China’s global loss of face, the families have not been formally punished, but left alone, mired in debt to local moneylenders and free to pursue their desperate claims for compensation.

When Lin Si’en confirmed his son’s death, he teamed up with three other customers of Lin Tongcai and told Fuqing police about the snakehead contact in their midst. Police arrested Lin Tongcai last July, but released him after a month. Lin could not be charged, the distraught families were told, because it was not his name on the receipts they offered as evidence of his complicity.

They have been chasing shadows ever since. The real signatory may have fled to England, while Lin’s brother escaped a police dragnet and remains hidden in western China. In November, the families struck again, after sighting another snakehead who had quietly returned to the village. Police detained him, but no compensation has been paid. He claims their deposits were taken overseas by an accomplice. This January, just before the bodies were returned, Lin Tongcai was rearrested for his own protection.

Now this band of semiliterate peasants has hired a lawyer to lend weight to their tatty letters of accusation and faxed pleas for help to the British and Dutch governments. At a discounted price of $240, Fuzhou lawyer Tao Yinsheng promises to secure compensation from any snakeheads sentenced in Chinese, Dutch or English courts.

Chen Suiying knows exactly what she wants. From time to time, the grieving mother visits Fuqing City to gaze at two new four-story buildings. “The police should give them to me,” she says of the empty houses owned by a snakehead now resident in Bulgaria. Chen paid him up front, all $27,000, and accuses the Fuqing police chief of being in his pay.

She has written to everyone from local magistrates to Premier Zhu Rongji, but doubts Zhu ever received her petition. The police chief ordered her to stop causing trouble. She vows to continue, while fending off a stream of old ladies seeking loan repayments and interest at 2 percent. “I’ve no idea when we can return the money,” she weeps. “Our boy knew we were poor, so he wanted to earn more money. But we are not the poorest. He repaired watches for $48 a month. We could grow sweet potatoes and peanuts. If only he hadn’t gone!”

At least Chen and her husband have another son to support them in old age. Lin Si’en also has another child, for China’s one-child policy is more flexibly implemented in the countryside. But his 18-year-old daughter will be married off in time, and her labor will benefit her in-laws. “We can’t sleep at night, my wife cries all the time,” says Lin. “Will anyone help us? We are so grateful to the British government for looking after the bodies. The snakeheads would have just thrown them in the sea. Now I only hope that people will think more carefully about sneaking abroad.”

European Union governments hope so too. Despite a looming labor shortage, “Fortress Europe” keeps its drawbridge up, battling to keep out an estimated half a million illegal immigrants a year. A recent internal EU report estimated that up to 200,000 Chinese could be waiting in the former Yugoslavia to be smuggled into the EU. A delegation from Brussels visited Fujian earlier this year, promising an information campaign on the reality of illegal immigration, from hazardous journeys to slavelike work and living conditions.

Privately, some diplomats doubt a media blitz will have much effect. Short of setting up formal labor contracts, or China growing richer at an even more spectacular rate than in the last two decades, experts fear nothing will slow the tide. Officials hope Yugoslavia’s post-Milosevic regime will be less accommodating to snakehead business, but other transit routes will open, just as the migrant source is changing, with northeast China threatening to overtake the southeast.

The Chinese government’s propaganda is painted on village buildings throughout Fujian. But despite the stern prohibitions on “toudu,” or “sneaking across” the seas, for many the term is simply not a dirty word. “The ordinary people support the snakeheads,” argues taxi driver Xiao Wanlin in Changle. “They give people a channel to get out and earn money. Accidents like Dover may happen, but not very often. Of course the relatives are angry at the snakeheads, but if they go round accusing them, they’ll get nothing.”

Xiao believes the local rumor that some victims’ families received cash paybacks from snakeheads after they threatened to inform the police. “There is some kind of justice,” he adds, though other families believe that hush money is paid only when the snakeheads’ own relatives die. Xiao’s trust in the system is justified by the odds on a successful journey, and like most people in Changle he speaks from experience.

His brother-in-law reached London in 1998, after walking over China’s border with Vietnam and flying to Europe from Bangkok, a visa-friendly haven for people-smugglers and passport-forgers. “It was well worth $24,000,” says Xiao. “He’s got refugee status now.” Or so he claims, for most immigrants reassure distant relatives with unrealistic accounts of life abroad. Asylum boards are wising up to economic migrants, forcing many to stay underground. One of the Dover survivors claimed in vain to have been persecuted as a Roman Catholic.

If they stay out of sight and trouble, Chinese migrants may sweat off their families’ debts within three to five years of leaving China. Then the wages trickling back home take shape in bricks and mortar, feeding the fantasies of those left behind.

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