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China-Vietnam Border Wall Would Target Smugglers, Chinese Economic Refugees

FILE - An empty border gate with China's Dong Xing town is seen amid the spread of the coronavirus disease, in Quang Ninh province, Vietnam Aug. 14, 2020.
FILE - An empty border gate with China's Dong Xing town is seen amid the spread of the coronavirus disease, in Quang Ninh province, Vietnam Aug. 14, 2020.

Reports that China is building a wall along the border with Vietnam to keep its own citizens at home spotlights economic hard times on the Chinese side and frustration on both sides with rampant smuggling, analysts believe.

Authorities in southwestern China are working on a two-meter-high wall along the 1,300-meter border, Radio Free Asia reported in October, referring to Chinese social media reports and individuals living nearby.

“The most logical reasoning is that China wants to control,” said Alexander Vuving, professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii. “The wall would be a perfect tool to control the flows of people, of things, of everything across the border.”

Chinese workers

China wants to restrain people who are out of work and seeking new job markets, experts say. Economic fallout from COVID-19-related shutdowns worldwide has weakened demand for China’s all-important manufactured exports, putting pressure on factory jobs.

The national unemployment rate grew to 6% in the first half of 2020.

Chinese workers are protesting wage delays and pay cuts as their companies scale back production or go out of business, the Hong Kong-based advocacy group China Labour Bulletin says.

The Beijing government frowns on citizens leaving without approval, especially if they take money out -- a threat to the command economy.

Video footage posted to Chinese social media in late October appeared to show about 1,000 Chinese migrant workers gathering in southwestern China near a border checkpoint with Vietnam.

In Vietnam, about 900,000 people were unemployed as of June 30 and another 18 million were underemployed, according to the state General Statistics Office. Despite those record numbers, factories invested by Chinese entrepreneurs are looking for other workers from China due to their familiarity with business practices at home.

The investors picked Vietnam to avoid paying tariffs on goods exported directly from China to the United States, the outcome of a 3-year-old Sino-U.S. trade dispute, said Nguyen Thanh Trung, Center for International Studies director at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Ho Chi Minh City.

“The trade war between China and the U.S., that’s the reason why so many Chinese companies come to Vietnam to avoid Chinese tariffs, and that’s the reason they need Chinese labor,” Nguyen said.

A wall along any border would have the added effects of thwarting any escapes by Chinese political dissidents and stopping casino gamblers from taking capital out of the country, Professor Vuving said. China is also building a fence along parts of its border with Myanmar, a hotspot for Chinese casino tourists.

Joint concern about smuggling

Both Vietnam and China have sounded alarm about border smuggling, a mutual economic threat. Rare animals and wood often pass illegally into China, while electronics and consumer goods move the other way. The two communist nations work closely together on trade despite political ties that are strained by a maritime sovereignty dispute.

Officials from China’s Guangxi Zhuang region, just north of Vietnam, said in 2015 they would spend $16 million to build an 8-kilometer-long border fence to fight smuggling, the state-owned reported at the time. The fence would be equipped with monitoring devices.

Guangxi law enforcement agencies had cracked 923 smuggling cases and seized more than 1,000 suspected smuggling vehicles in just the first quarter of that year, said.

The Vietnam-based Youth news website said in July that despite 16 Vietnamese checkpoints established to prevent illegal entry, Chinese smugglers “have been blazing dozens of new trails from China” and challenging the work of border guards. Illegal entries, the report added, threaten to infect Vietnam with new COVID-19 cases.

Mountain-dwelling ethnic minority groups have historically traded across the border and moved goods from one side to the other regardless of the formal boundary lines.

China ranks as Vietnam’s biggest trade partner with a volume of about $100 billion in the first 10 months of 2020. Most of that amount represents exports to Vietnam.

“Vietnam has as much interest as China in closing cross-border smuggling, particularly since it has such a massive trade deficit with China,” said Carl Thayer, Southeast Asia-specialized emeritus professor from the University of New South Wales in Australia.