On the other side they work as maids, harvest crops or toil hunched in sweatshops.
As familiar as this sounds, this is not
Among the most active borders for the furtive crossings is
"People are struggling for money in
Labor shortages in
"This is an economic phenomenon," said Zhang
Wenshan, a professor of law at Guangxi University who has studied the
rise of illegal workers. "It's globalization. Labor costs are
It's an unlikely reversal for a country that until recently seemed to have an endless supply of cheap labor. But rapid development and urbanization are just as quickly raising workers' expectations. Young, rural Chinese have fled the farms for cities. Factory workers are choosing to strike rather than accept minimal pay. In their wake they're leaving openings that foreign workers are eager to fill.
With their numbers still relatively small and
Still, tensions are growing. The Chinese government
— historically wary of foreigners — has granted permanent residency to
only a few thousand migrants in the last three decades. Sporadic
roundups of illegal workers are on the rise. Friction between
authorities and African merchants exploded into a riot last year in the
southern city of
Controlling the influx of illegal workers isn't easy, even for an authoritarian state.
For many Vietnamese, the quest for the Chinese Dream
often begins in border communities such as Aidian, a shabby village of
8,500 in the province of
On a recent rainy afternoon, two young men wearing
basketball jerseys sat on plastic stools on the Chinese side of the
border collecting 10,000 Vietnamese dong, about
Wei Haiguang, a contractor whose business is just up
the street from the border crossing, said corruption in the region was
endemic. He said friends of his had helped guide Vietnamese workers
The government "won't ever be able to control the border," said Wei, a stocky 38-year-old wearing Buddhist bracelets and an ivory pendant around his neck. "There's too many small roads and passes. Besides, who else is going to work in the fields?"
The job of Chinese authorities is particularly
challenging here because it's tough to tell who's who. Members of the
Zhuang ethnic minority group dominate parts of
"There's really no big difference between the Vietnamese and us," said Qin Zhongjiang, who runs a health center in Chongzuo, a city 40 miles from the border whose central bus station often serves as a pick-up point for undocumented workers.
Chinese farmer Lu Qixue hires Vietnamese laborers before the autumn sugar cane harvest. For up to five grueling months, the foreign workers put in 10-hour days thwacking sugar cane stalks with scythes.
"They work slowly, and we always have to train them, but we can't find enough skilled Chinese," said Lu, a rail-thin 58-year-old village chief with gravelly stubble. "If we don't hire the Vietnamese, we won't be able to grow as much."
A capable Chinese worker is paid about
"I don't want to carry sugar cane down the mountain," said his youngest son, Lu Xinghuan, 26, who aspires to own a trucking company. "It's hard work."
Labor activists said the growing use of undocumented foreigners is undermining gains made with
"These (foreign) workers have no legal protection at
all and are often complicit with their employers in keeping their
presence out of sight of the authorities," said
Officially, businesses that hire undocumented aliens are fined up to
Despite the crackdowns it remains to be seen if
illegal immigration will spark much resentment among natives. Zhu
Guanqiao, a restaurant owner from
"Everyone has to eat," said Zhu, 38, standing near a border gate in the Chinese city of Pingxiang. "The Vietnamese are poor and their living standards are lower than ours. We're a richer country now. If they come here just to work, I think we should let them."———
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