Project

China's Human Snakes Return

In New York’s Chinatown there is a newly formed alumni association for a high school in the rural area of Fujian province, a coastal province in southern China. Many people, even those from China, have never heard of the name of the school. But the alumni association has close to 20,000 members in the U.S., more than many top universities in China have in their U.S. associations. A major difference between the members of this association and the alumni from the top universities is that they are mainly people who were once smuggled into this country.

During the peak of human smuggling from China in the 1980s and the 1990s, hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the rural areas of Fujian Province were smuggled into the U.S. The migration from Tingjiang County, where the high school is located, was particularly huge. For many years, almost the entire graduating class of the school would leave for the United States.

That flow has now dramatically slowed thanks partly to China’s economic development and the increasing opportunities available there. The handful of graduates from the school who were not able to make it to the U.S. eventually benefited from the economic boom in China. Some are wealthier than their classmates in the U.S.

Most of those smuggled—known as human snakes—were largely undereducated and owed big fees to the smugglers when they landed here. Many had to work as deliverymen, dishwashers or garment workers at the beginning, but a lot went on to become small business owners, and then, successful entrepreneurs. Many of them are now going back to China to pursue business opportunities. A reverse migration is starting.

Journalist Rong Xiaoqing looks at the radical changes in immigration trends between China and the U.S. through the lives of graduates of this high school. She follows their routes from China to the U.S.—including all the hardships they experienced—and then back to China to tell a significant story about shifting economic fortunes in both the U.S. and China, and offer new insights into the impact of U.S. immigration policy in an election year that has put it front and center.

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