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From the New York Times, I'm Michael Barbaro. This is The Daily. Today. A crisis of confidence is brewing inside China, where the heavy hand of the government is turning true believers in the Chinese dream into skeptics willing to flee the country. My colleague, Li Yuen, on on how that crisis is now showing up at the US-Mexico border. It's Thursday, February 15th.


Li, you write about China for the Times. Tell us how it is that you first came to this story.


I watch a lot of Chinese social media for my job. In early I started seeing something quite surprising for me. I saw all these videos on social media of Chinese people crossing the US border with Mexico by taking the route, what we call the Daring Gap. And most people taking the Daring Gap are from Venezuela, Ecuador, and Haiti. But what felt so unusual for Chinese people taking this journey that unlike these other groups, these Chinese are fleeing the world's second largest economy.


Right. They are not, in most of the public's imagination, in the same boat as the migrants from any of the countries we think of where people are fleeing violence and poverty and taking this very dangerous route, the Darian Gap.




How many Chinese migrants are we talking about here?


You Last year in 2023, 24,000 Chinese crossed the Southern border.




Yeah, that's more than the previous 10 years combined. Wow. If we step back and look at the history, China used to be a big country for migration. A lot of people were leaving, trying very hard to leave China in 1980s when China was a very poor country. And then as the economy grew, Life became much better. The opportunities were abundant, and there were hundreds of millions of Chinese middle class. And by 2012, very few Chinese were leaving. And about 80% of Chinese who studied abroad, people like me, went back to China because why leave China? You could have Chinese dream.


As a play on the American dream, right?


Yeah, the American dream. We grew up watching Hollywood movies. We all know the term, and then the Communist Party coopted the term and became the Chinese dream, and many Chinese bought into that. But in recent years, the numbers of people leaving China have again started to go up. Actually, hundreds of thousands of Chinese citizens left the country last year. And the Chinese Chinese migrants who crossed the daring gap represent those who are going to the most extreme lands to leave the country. I've been really interested in finding out why are they doing this?


What do you come to understand about why thousands of Chinese migrants are making this journey? What explains it?


It might be better if I can give you an example, a man I met.. His name is Gao Zzbin. He's 39 years old, and he thought he realized the Chinese dream and ended up on the Daren Gap.




He was born in China's Eastern province, Shandong, in a poor village. He said he grew up having only two meals with meat a year, and he didn't finish middle school. He worked hard labor, making very little money. But he dreamed about the world outside his village. He went to work at an electronics factory in Beijing, making about $300 a month, which was a fortune for him. He has a lot of street smart. You can sense it when you're talking to him. After a few years, he started working for a human resources company, recruiting factory workers just like him. Then by 2007, he made some money, and he leased a plot of land on the outskirts of Beijing and build an apartment building and rent it out to migrant workers.


So he basically becomes a small-scale, almost developer.


Yeah, a very small-scale developer, and he did pretty well. He was making about $30,000 a year, which was pretty good money for anybody in China at the time. He got married, and he had a daughter, and a few years later, he had a son. He moved his parents from their village to Beijing, which was a big success in Chinese culture. He really believed he made it.


His life was only going to become better and better.


What you're describing feels like a middle-class existence in China's capital, a success story, not exactly the person you would expect to leave China.


Yeah. The Chinese government likes talking about hundreds of millions of Chinese lifted out of poverty. He was one of them. But then in 2018, everything changed for Gao.


. He He got a notice from the local government that they wanted to take back the land he leased and tear down the apartment building he had built.


The building he had built and subdivided?






The government wanted to use the land to sell it for big bucks to bigger developers.


Essentially, the government just wants to override the lease that he has for this land. They just don't seem to respect it, and they're putting up this sign and saying to It's over.




And the government ordered everyone in Gao's building to leave. And Gao is like, No way. And he refused to leave. But the government cut off the water, the power, and they throw away the tenant's belongings on the street.


And they dumped toilet sewage in the because they wanted to make it unleivable for the people.


Then on that day, when the government came with police and bulldozers to tear the building down, he said he stood on the roof of the building. He said he was so angry. His eyes just blacked out.


He had a break in his hand.


A break in his hand? Yes. He wanted to throw it and fight the police, the government officials. And his mom knelt down in front of him, begged him not to fight. You can't fight the government. Just get over with it. Carry on with your life.


And he told me he just cried What does Gau end up doing after the government takes away his land and this building?


Well, Gou didn't want to give up. He decided to go to the higher authority, the central government, to petition his He thought at least he could demand some compensation for what he had lost. But during that process, he said he and his family started getting harassed by local authorities. The even went to his children's school to ask the students with the same last name, Gau, to stand up.


To stand up in the classroom.


Yeah, to intimidate, basically. It got so bad that he legally divorced his wife to try to trick the authorities to stop harassing her and her parents. Meanwhile, he had lost income from the apartment building. He was trying to make a living doing odd jobs, and And at the end of it, Gaul got absolutely nothing in return for the loss of his property.


And at that time, he started to think about his world. He said, I felt like I suddenly woke up.


He said, he just found out there's no way to pursue justice in his country.


He told me, I felt like I finally saw through this country's reality, saw right through it.


His outlook for the country and for his own future just became very dark. That was what he said.


At this point, it seems safe to say that his version of the Chinese dream has collapsed. I wonder, as he's telling you this story, Li, what you make of it.


To be honest, if you are a China correspondence, you cover China, this is the type of story you hear again and again. The space for the society just shrunk so much in the past decade or so under the government of Xi Jinping. It has become really hard for people from all kinds of socioeconomic backgrounds. You can get into trouble for anything, for being a Uyghur, Christian, Muslim, where you're just an ordinary online user just making a comment on social media, where you're just a Communist Party cadre who has a copy of a banned book, and you can be in trouble. The police can show up at your door in the middle of the night, the knock on the door.


Everything goes away.


Yeah, you just live in constant fear. And all of this are happening at the same time when the unemployment rate is rising and the Chinese economy is falling apart. People just can't see where their future is going to be. The loss of confidence is you can feel it in the air. That's what people told me. So this is the moment that the idea of the Chinese dream, you work very hard and the life will become better, is clashing with the reality of the Chinese government.


. He thought to himself that I can do this, too.


We'll be right back.


Once Gou decides to leave China, why does he decide to leave this way? Why not go to a nearby neighboring country in Asia? Why not go to Europe? Why travel across the ocean to the US through such a particularly terrifyingly dangerous route as the Darian Gap?


Yeah. For many Chinese people, it's pretty obvious that US is the country they should move to because it is the wealthiest country in the world, and the wages are much higher here than in most countries. And also, the US still looms large in the imagination of Chinese people. For many people, the American dream never died. The problem is, it's not easy for ordinary Chinese people like Gau to get any visa to go directly to the US. But Chinese passport holders can fly directly to Ecuador without a visa. And from there, there's a well-traveled path to the Daren Gap. So many Chinese people just think that going from Ecuador to the Daren Gap is actually one of the best options for them to get to the United States.


But how aware is Gau of what is entailed in walking from Ecuador to the US border through that landscape?


He was aware of the danger. He told me he knew that people died on the route.


But He told me his life was so risky, so dangerous, so uncertain in China.


He decided he might just as well leave to start a new life. Gao had never been out of China, and he didn't even have a passport. He applied for a passport after he decided to leave. He also convinced his family to let him bring his eldest child, his 13-year-old daughter, to come with him. They left Beijing late February last year. They flew to Turkey and then to Ecuador and got connected with smugglers who took them to the Daring Gap.


It was such a brutal journey, Gou told me. On the first day, he had sun stroke.


On the second day, he could barely walk, and his daughter vomited and fainted on the ground. I asked him what was going through his mind during the journey. He said it was despair.


But he just told his daughter, We have to keep going.


We can't get left behind. The journey took 35 days. They reached the border in late March and crossed from Mexico into Texas.


They were taken by border control agents. Gau told his story about what his experienced in China, and he was let go.


This is where it feels like Gau's story seems to intersect with a very long-running story in the United States, which is what's going on at the border. Thousands, tens of thousands a week, migrants showing up at that Southern border seeking asylum. Because there's such a backlog to process the applications, folks are let into the US and remain here. That seems to be what happened to Gau and his daughter.


Yeah, Gau and his daughter, they were lucky. They were let go within 48 hours, and immigration agents sent them to San Francisco. That's where he and his daughter have been ever since.


What does his life look like in San Francisco?


So, Gao and his daughter are living in a studio apartment at a housing shelter there.




He He got a work permit and has been working, delivering packages for $2 per package. He gets up at 6:00 AM every morning, and his daughter has to get up around the same time because she cannot be at a family shelter alone.


She would stay at the KFC until his school He works really, really long hours.


He told me he cries when he thinks about leaving her alone.


This sounds like a very difficult existence. I mean, the difficult existence that might make somebody wonder if they had made the right decision.


Life isn't easy for him and his daughter, but Gao is focusing on what the US is giving him. He said the Chinese government took away his building, and he can't believe the US government gave him an apartment to live for free.




One thing he emphasized is the freedom he has here. He doesn't need to fear for the knock on the door anymore. I asked him, Are you idolizing the US too much? He kept telling me, No, I never regret it, my decision of coming here. And he told me a story of when I've known in November when Xi Jinping was in San Francisco to meet with President Biden. And Gao saw on social media that there would be a protest in San Francisco. So he actually took the day off and went downtown. He said he joined a group of protesters, and started chanting, Xi Jinping, step down.


And he was actually interviewed by a Chinese media outlet at the scene..


He sent me the clip and the reporter asked him, Why are you here? He said, Freedom is great.


Then he shouted, Long live, freedom.


Xi Jinping, step.


He told me he felt amazing.


He said, In China, I wouldn't dare say that. But this were hard-filled words, and I could finally shout them out. He said he felt like a completely different person after.


What's the most likely outcome of this story for Gao? What do you think is going to happen to him?


Gao applied for political asylum in May, and he's waiting to see if it will be granted.




In the meantime, he dreams of one day settling down again in his own house, not in a shelter.


And he also wants to be reunited with his family.


Right, which, of course, the majority of which is still back in China.


Yeah. For now, he tells his wife that he will be able to get a green card soon, which he says is a lie.


In reality, he's not certain what will happen to him.. And a lot of people like him who made a similar journey. He ended up going back to China. When I talked to them, they said, Things are just too hard.




He will never go back to China as long as the Communist Party is in power..


Gao would seem, Li, to be exactly the person on paper that China wouldn't want to lose. Somebody who made the journey that, as you said, China is so proud of, from rural China to urban China, who tried to create a business, a development, did so, brought his family to the big city, and yet he'd rather risk his life and flee to the United States through the jungle, then endure this version of China's government. Based on your reporting, hundreds of thousands of others are doing the same thing. Yet the reality is that China is a country of huge numbers.


Yeah, 1.4 billion people. Right.


Even if hundreds of thousands of Chinese people are leaving, that's still a pretty small proportion of population. Is what we're experiencing here, what you're documenting, a threat to China's future and something that it's going to be taken seriously, or is this just the cost of the authority libertarian political model that China now has under Xi? And can it, therefore, tolerate this outflow?


I don't think any country should take this lightly. It is a serious problem for any government. In the past year, I wrote about Chinese entrepreneurs, young professionals, intellectuals, artists, filmmakers, all kinds of people leaving because they couldn't suffer it anymore. There's even a term for that called. Running away from China is among the most popular buzzwords in China last year. Everybody talks about where they should move to, what their options are. My friends told me that it's also one of the hottest topics on dinner tables in China.


When people sit around and really get to talking and they get under their cups, you're saying, they talk about fleeing.


Yeah, people are obsessed with this. I think what Gaul and many people are doing is starting to look like a beginning of a great exodus of China. When the government became so harsh on its people, when the economy is not doing well, and people can't vote for their leaders, some people decided there's only one way to vote. That's with their feet. That was what Gao and many people did. I believe many more people are going to do that.


Well, Lee, thank you very much. We appreciate it.


Thank you.


We'll be right back. Here's what else you need to know today. On Wednesday, a rocket fired from Lebanon struck a base in Israel, killing an Israeli soldier and wounding eight others and prompting a massive response from the Israeli government. Hours later, Israel carried out extensive airstrikes on Southern Lebanon that killed at least four people. The exchanges represent the deadly tit for tat that could quickly spiral into a direct conflict between Israel and Lebanon, which Israel has twice invaded in the past. And a celebration of the Kansas City Chief's Super Bowl victory has turned into America's latest mass shooting. One person was killed, and at least 21 others were injured, nine of them children. Kansas City police said they had detained three people in connection with the shooting, but offered few details and no motive. Today's episode was produced by Stella Tan, Shannon Lynn, and Jessica Chown. It was edited by MJ Davis Lynn, with help from Michael Benoît and Paige Cawet. Contains original music by Marion Lozano, Ron Umistow, and Dan Powell, and was engineered by Chris Wood. That's it for the Daily. I'm Michael Barbaro. See Michael Babar. See you tomorrow.