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China resumes cooperating with US on illegal migration

FILE - Migrants walk after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border near Jacumba, California, Oct. 24, 2023. China has resumed cooperating with the U.S. to repatriate Chinese migrants illegally stranded in the U.S., The Associated Press reported Thursday.   
FILE - Migrants walk after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border near Jacumba, California, Oct. 24, 2023. China has resumed cooperating with the U.S. to repatriate Chinese migrants illegally stranded in the U.S., The Associated Press reported Thursday.   

China has quietly resumed cooperation with the United States on the repatriation of Chinese migrants illegally stranded in the U.S., The Associated Press reported Thursday.

The U.S.-China repatriation cooperation resumes amid the influx of Chinese migrants across the southern border of the United States.

China halted the cooperation in August 2022 as part of retaliation over the visit to Taiwan by then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.

Beijing considers the self-ruled island a breakaway province that must one day reunite with the mainland — by force if necessary — and opposes any official contact between Taipei and foreign governments, especially Washington, which supplies weapons for Taiwan to defend itself.

Since the cooperation was halted, the U.S. has seen a spike in the number of Chinese migrants entering illegally from Mexico.

U.S. border officials in 2023 arrested more than 37,000 Chinese nationals at the southern border, nearly 10 times more than in 2022.

China's Foreign Ministry this week told the AP Beijing was "willing to maintain dialogue and cooperation in the area of immigration enforcement with the U.S." and would accept Chinese nationals who were deported.

The resumption came after Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas in April told NBC News the U.S. and China were holding high-level talks on the issue.

Ariel G. Ruiz Soto, a senior policy analyst at the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute, said negotiations may increase the number of deportations of Chinese migrants in the short term. But he said the real effect on migrants' decision-making process depends more on U.S. resources and capacity to conduct more removals.

"Prior negotiations with Venezuela, for example, did not lead to large increases in removals from the United States partially because it takes time to change structures and implement these measures," he told VOA.

The New York Times reported that 100,000 Chinese nationals are living in the U.S. despite final orders for deportation.

The number of Chinese migrants illegally entering the U.S. on its southern border has shown a downward trend this year, after a record spike in December.

U.S. Customs and Borders Protection (CBP) said that while there were nearly 6,000 arrests of Chinese nationals in December, there were 3,700 in January, 3,500 in February, and just over 2,000 in March.

Soto attributed the drop to stronger visa and border enforcement, but also to China's censoring online information about the route.

"Because technology has become so entrenched in how migrants learn and select travel routes today, unlike in prior years when these were more heavily based on personal knowledge and networks," he told VOA, "it is likely that censoring content in mainstream channels can make it more difficult to travel along existing routes."

Social media platform Douyin, the Chinese version of the short video sharing platform TikTok, has since last year been quietly cracking down on content about "Zouxian," which means "walk the line" in Mandarin.

The term refers to Chinese migrants illegally crossing borders, including into the U.S. from Mexico and South America. It became a popular topic on the Chinese internet a few years ago and was used to search for information and tips on the route.

Reuters reported last year that many Chinese migrants found at the U.S. southern border said they found out how to travel there on Douyin.

Yang Yinhua, 31, told VOA he had no idea what the word "Zouxian" meant until last summer when he was introduced to the phrase while reading news about how dangerous the journey could be. He tried to look it up on China's biggest search engine, Baidu, but couldn't find much useful information. In August, someone he met on the internet invited him to join a group chat on Douyin.

Group members shared information and tips about how to Zouxian to other countries, including the U.S. Yang said the chat quickly reached the maximum number of participants, which was 500. It was one of the six Zouxian group chats created by a user called Yunfei. Yang said all six chats were filled within weeks.

"Nobody was living a decent life during the last five or six years," he told VOA. "The ruling party wasn't making the people feel happy like it used to."

When Yang's mother died alone during the pandemic, he blamed China's draconian COVID-19 policy and decided it was time to leave his home country.

By October, he had a plan to travel to the U.S. by way of Turkey, Ecuador and the Mexico-U.S. border.

But Yang noticed Douyin started blocking Zouxian content. Yang and others in the group chat had to invent new words to continue discussing the route because the platform kept censoring certain key words.

By the end of October, Yunfei had deleted all videos he posted about getting to the U.S., Yang said. Then Douyin suspended Yunfei's account and shut down all six of his chat groups.

As soon as he left China, Yang stopped using Douyin and moved to the messaging application Telegram, where he joined a group chat also set up by Yunfei.

But by the time Yang entered the chat, Yunfei had already left. In April, Yang said, the chat was taken over by what he called "little pink patriots," a derogatory nickname for those expressing pro-Beijing views.

On TikTok, the international version of Douyin owned by the same parent company ByteDance, users noticed in January that content about Zouxian and the U.S.-Mexico border were being blocked.

"No results found," the app says when you search for the term "Zouxian." It adds that the phrase "may be associated with behavior or content that violates our guidelines."

According to TikTok's community guidelines, content considered harmful cannot be displayed. That includes hate speech, sexual violence, harassment, human exploitation and more.

"We do not allow human exploitation, including trafficking and smuggling," the guidelines read.

VOA tested Douyin in May and found that, aside from a few news clips about Chinese migrants traveling to the southern border of the U.S., "Zouxian" does not return any details about the route. Search results for locations including "Ecuador," "Guatemala" and "Panama" likewise show no results for Zouxian.

For many Chinese migrants, Douyin was one of the few sources of online information on the route. China's internet firewall blocks social media sites Facebook, YouTube and X in China.

VOA reached out to ByteDance for comment but received no response by the time of publication.

Wang Yaqiu, director of China, Hong Kong and Taiwan at human rights organization Freedom House in Washington, said the phenomenon of Zouxian reflects many Chinese people's dissatisfaction with Beijing, which she thinks can partly explain Douyin's crackdown.

"I think the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] is embarrassed that so many Chinese people want to flee the country even through such risky means. It exposes CCP propaganda about the Chinese economy and how good people's life are to be a sham," she wrote to VOA.

In March, the bodies of eight Chinese migrants were found washed up on a beach in southern Mexico after the boat they were on capsized.

Despite China's censorship of the route, Yang evaded border patrols to cross into the U.S. in early December with his sister. He lives in California, works at a warehouse and has no desire to return to China.

Aline Barros contributed to this report.