Down the Mekong: Why Leave China for Cambodia?

Leeshai Lemish

Christian, a Falun Gong practitioner, and a Tibetan Buddhist are sitting in a restaurant. It sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, but it’s not funny to the three refugees who abandoned China in search for a persecution-free country and ended up in Cambodia. Take one young man, for example. When I met him in Cambodia for the first time, he looked like he would have a nervous breakdown if someone didn’t get him out to a safer place soon.

A successful businessman in China, he converted to Christianity and found values in the Bible that resonated with his longing for a less oppressive Chinese society. He joined a local “house church” that, being unsanctioned by the state, soon came under attack. Many of his friends were arrested and he fled through Vietnam to Cambodia. He says he still gets threatening calls from people linked to the Chinese Embassy.

Perhaps the most famous refugee among them is Ms. Zhang Xinyi, a Falun Gong practitioner who escaped from China to Cambodia, where she taught in a Chinese grade school. She soon found herself back in China, however, this time in a labor camp. Someone reported her to the embassy, which practically kidnapped her and sent her back.

And then there is a Chinese follower of Tibetan Buddhism who told me she received a phone call from someone who threatened, “We can eliminate you.” She claims she has been living in fear ever since, even in Cambodia. But some question her motivations and say she simply wants to find a way to get to America or Europe.

She is not the only Chinese who wants to get as far away from China as possible, nor is this a new phenomenon. A few decades ago Chinese swam to Hong Kong to get out of the mainland. Today, those who can afford to just get on a flight and stay wherever they are welcome.

Yet this begs a question: with so many people from around the world running to China, why are Chinese people running away?

International finance is perhaps the best example of this phenomenon: foreign investors are rushing into the Chinese coastal cities, while Chinese elites and tycoons are rushing to deposit their money in overseas banks. Capital flight easily outweighs foreign investment. Why would the locals, who should be the most in the know, hurry to get their money out of there?

A similar question might be raised in the domain of migration. If, as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) says, China is really getting better and better, and the government guarantees all basic personal freedoms, why do so many Chinese want out? Though North Korean refugees hurrying south into China may jeopardize this balance, more people are fleeing from China than are hastening toward the mainland.

Some of them end up in Cambodia, which they perceive as only a temporary stop before – ideally – America. As one Chinese acquaintance in Cambodia said, 70% of the Chinese he knows curse America, but 95% desperately want to go there.

As a westerner in Cambodia, I was always being asked questions by the locals. Some of the most frequent ones were: where was I going, was I married, and did I need a motorbike ride. The Chinese asked me an entirely different set of questions: how much does it cost to go to America, would I be able to help them get a U.S. visa, and what does it take to become recognized as a refugee by the U.N.

In theory, Cambodia is a country that has signed the United Nations convention guaranteeing protection to refugees. In practice, and in obvious violation of the U.N treaty, however, the Cambodian government reportedly deports not only Falun Gong practitioners but also scores of Vietnamese refugees. Refugees in Cambodia hardly feel safe.

Chinese refugees find life in Cambodia bleak. On top of the typical predicament of trying to build a new life alone in a foreign country, they often find themselves alienated and in financial strife. Without proper papers, they cannot find a job. They may not have enough money to renew expired visas, and the embassy won’t renew their Chinese passports when those expire anyway. Moreover, many of the refugees are constantly looking over their shoulder. They hardly trust anyone, and are afraid of letting others get too close.

What this all boils down to is that these refugees again want out of the country. Thus the local office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), acting on behalf of the refugees whose cases seem most urgent, is left with the tough job of looking for third-country resettlement.

Particularly after September 11, fewer governments are willing to welcome refugees into their countries. During the Cold War, being an anti-communist Soviet refugee was virtually enough to receive asylum in democratic states. Today, however, Chinese who are fed up with the CCP are not as fortunate and feel largely ignored.

Some seem to believe they need to better their candidacy for that much coveted ticket of resettlement from Cambodia to a third country. Enter those refugees who tell self-contradictory stories that seem unlikely in the extreme. Enter those who claim (perhaps reasonably) that a fellow asylum seeker is a spy. Enter those pretending to be Falun Gong practitioners.

The phenomenon of Chinese immigrants pretending to practice Falun Gong has become quite popular in recent years. They see how genuine Falun Gong adherents receive protected status in their new countries, and they figure they can act the part; after all, how hard can it be to sit with your legs crossed? They learn the Falun Gong exercises, take a few pictures, and then it’s off to the UNHCR or immigration department. They do this not only in Cambodia but also in the United States.

What a bizarre scenario: a country’s president bans a group, so the country’s citizens pretend to be part of that group in order to permanently stay out of the country. And while the phenomenon may not necessarily represent a broad section, it’s part of a bigger picture.

Foreign businessmen are rushing in, but many Chinese want out. Add Uighurs, Tibetans, and some Mongolians to the list. Hong Kong residents reluctantly went back a few years ago and now seem to regret it, while Taiwanese pray the status quo will outlive the communist party. What is it that they all don’t like?

Leeshai Lemish has conducted research on the overseas Chinese population in Cambodia courtesy of a grant from the Freeman Foundation. This article is the second in his series “Down the Mekong.”

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