Migrants death shows lack of understanding

By Rong Xiaoqing Source:Global Times Published: 2019/10/31 18:58:40

Le Minh Tuan, father of 30-year old Le Van Ha, who is feared to be among the 39 people found dead in a truck in Britain, cries while holding Ha's son outside their house in Vietnam's Nghe An province on Sunday. Photos: AFP

No words can express the depth of my sorrow over the 39 immigrants who were found dead in the back of a refrigerated truck in the UK hours after they were smuggled into the country. Still, it is necessary to find words to discuss the fallacies the tragedy triggered as too many people got too many things wrong, making an already fraught situation unnecessarily controversial, confusing and politically charged.

The British police have to take much of the initial blame for making the first mistake by suggesting that all the victims were Chinese nationals. It is unclear what evidence the police had to say that in the middle of last week, but over the next few days it became clear that many - and possibly all - of the dead were from Vietnam. 

To be sure, it can be difficult to tell Vietnamese from Chinese facial characteristics, especially for Westerners. And there were no survivors to tell the authorities their story. It is also possible some of the victims were carrying false Chinese documents.

The unintentional mistake set off immediate ripples with international media questioning why people would still risk their lives to flee from a China that is much more prosperous than it has ever been. The discussion, if not skewed by a distorted ideological prism, stems from the limited understanding the West has about China. 

In the 1980s and 1990s, tens of thousands of Chinese came to the US through smuggling channels, and most of them were from the southeastern coastal Fujian Province. In those days, port cities like New York took in a ship hiding hundreds of immigrants almost every week.

Such audacious endeavors on such a big scale have now become history. In recent years, I heard a lot of complaints from Fujianese immigrants living in the US that they don't make much more than their peers in their home country. China's economic development has helped calm the smuggling waves. As a result, many Chinese restaurants, which used to rely on cheap labor provided by undocumented immigrants, have been recently struggling with labor shortages.

But China is not monolithic. Are a large number of the 1.4 billion people still living in poverty even when the country in general is considered relatively rich? You bet. Anyone who bothers to visit any village in the Daliang Mountains in Southwest China's Sichuan Province could tell you that. Major Chinese cities inevitably also have a dark underbelly where people are trying to scrape together a living.    

Not all poor people will try to seek a better life in a foreign country, and even those who would won't likely take the grueling routes and risk their lives like the Fujianese of previous generations. But there are still many Chinese overstaying their visas in North America and Europe and seeking various day labor jobs as they chase their dreams.           

Then, judging from the comments online, it seems many Chinese people also misunderstand their own people. In the first few days when all the victims were believed to be Chinese, some Chinese netizens concluded with traceable pain that some of their compatriots still didn't feel they belonged to the country. 

But unlike political immigrants, economic immigrants are more likely to tie their identity to their home countries than their host countries. I have noticed that this is particularly the case with blue-collar workers.

The patriotism felt toward China by Fujianese immigrants, for example, is greater than that of any other Chinese immigrant in the US as far as I can see. They are the people who are always stand on the front line of China-related rallies, be it to welcome visiting Chinese leaders or having a shouting match with people protesting against the Chinese government.

For many years, I was baffled by this. The Fujianese left China too early to be able to taste the fruits of the economic blastoff. You can even say they chose to leave because they didn't get enough opportunities to take advantage of the market reforms. Why are they the ones who would defend China more vehemently than any other overseas Chinese? 

Only in recent years, after talking to many of them, have I figured it out - these are people who have been struggling at the bottom of society in the US. Despite the sweat soaked dollars they make, they have little chance to interact with the mainstream culture, let alone be accepted by it. They are disproportionately discriminated against in this country. They have to cope with racism. And their compatriots in China may not be able to completely understand this.

All I want to say is that the world is more complicated than we often assume, and things can look totally different on the surface and beneath it. The only way to see it more clearly is to see it as it is rather than from the tainted glasses of pre-formed perceptions.  

The author is a New York-based journalist and Alicia Patterson fellow. rong_xiaoqing@hotmail.com


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