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Date Posted: 20:35 23/01/2005

Iraq and the Fujian diaspora

If there's a Chinese worker kidnapped in a rogue state, you can bet your arm that he's from Fujian Province

THE KIDNAPPING and subsequent release of eight Chinese migrant workers in Iraq at least sheds some light on the curious phenomenon that is Fujian, the ancestral home of the human smugglers known as 'snakeheads'. It seems that, for whatever reason, virtually everyone in the southeastern coastal province is trying to leave the country by one means or another. Large and illegal Fujianese communities seem to have accumulated in most major cities throughout the world, staffing Chinese restaurants, picking items off conveyor belts or gathering fruit and vegetables for very low rates of pay.

Last Thursday, local reports noted that the eight workers, hailing from Pingtan in the north of Fujian, had been smuggled out of the country just before the turn of the new year by the same sort of 'intermediaries' who had arranged the transfer of four Pingtan workers to Iraq last April. Those four were also kidnapped and released.

After working on the reconstruction of a clothing factory blown up by the United States army in Baghdad, the eight workers left because the conditions were too poor. They then found another job where they could earn as much as 500 dollars a month. When that dried up, they decided to leave the capital and drive south with the intention of returning home, inadvertantly taking the route described by the local Chinese ambassador as the 'road of death'.

The eight workers, as well as the four kidnapped and released in Iraq last April, may be regarded as among the lucky ones. The 19 Chinese who drowned off the coast of Morecambe in northwest England last year, including eight from Fujian, and the 58 Fujianese who were suffocated in the back of a truck while taking a ferry from Zeebrugge to Dover in 2000, suggest that life is cheap in the snakehead world.

Some people cite Fujian's proximity to the coast as one of the reasons why snakeheads exert such a baleful influence on the region. Still, with security now stepped up along the East China Sea, their activities are not actually limited to putting stowaways on boats. At the end of last year, 30 Fujianese were caught trying to leave China through Xishuangbanna on the southwestern border of Yunnan Province. They had hired a car to drive into Burma, and were planning further journeys to Japan, the UK, and Australia. The families of the people involved had apparently paid snakeheads more than half a million RMB.

We have not yet been told whether the 32 Chinese stowaways found in a cargo container at the Port of Los Angeles last week hailed from Fujian, but no one would be in the least surprised. The ship had apparently docked at Shetou, further south in Guangdong Province.

A curious article by the English-language rag, China Daily, last April noted that apart from the poverty and the incentive of earning much more money abroad, there was 'peer pressure' to work overseas in Fujian Province, as well as a long local history of running off to seek one's fortune. Fujian was, after all, at the centre of the Chinese diaspora.

The gangmasters, naturally, play on such aspirations, wooing the gullible with tales of bright lights and streets paved with gold. Once they reach their destination, the workers are usually indentured in the most squalid, back-breaking conditions in order to pay their debts, with the women on occasion being forced into prostitution.

Of course, if the freedom of movement for capital was matched by the freedom of movement for labour, as classical market economics ought to stipulate, the problems of illegal immigration could be eliminated at a stroke, and global inequalities would also be mitigated. Unfortunately, we live in the real world, and not in the microeconomic utopia of supply and demand curves. Easing the movement of labour just within China itself is challenging enough, with migrant workers facing prejudice and oppression at almost every turn. In the most populated country in the world, and with huge swathes of rural underemployment throughout the land, manual labour shortages still emerge from time to time, most recently in Guangdong. Maybe if it was easier for poor Fujian peasants to earn their living in China, there wouldn't be so many of them going off and getting themselves kidnapped or killed.

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