Border Crossers and the Militarization of China’s Border in Times of COVID-19
Political reactions to the COVID-19 pandemic brought global mobility to a halt in March 2020. The resulting social consequences only become clear over time. The case of China shows how profoundly border regimes have changed. While the pandemic responses in Wuhan and Beijing were quickly and effectively enforced, other parts of the country had more difficulties imposing mobility control. Especially in China’s border area, quarantine regulations, pandemic responses and their implementation varied enormously. To prevent ‘imported’ COVID-19 infections, the border was militarized in many areas that contributed to illegalizing the daily routines of border residents and the efforts of Chinese citizens seeking to return home amid the pandemic.
China’s borders are a place of exception. Along over 22,000 kms China borders 14 neighbouring states and the Special Administrative Regions of Hong Kong and Macau, rules and regulations of border crossings vary according to the border province and local government (prefectural level). Often, border prefectures maintain special regulations for the local communities as the citizens often are ethnically related in so called cross-border communities. In China’s multi-ethnic southwestern border province Yunnan, several ethnic groups traditionally live their everyday lives across the border. Janet Sturgeon studied Akha rubber farmers that live and work on different sides of the border in Thailand, China, and Myanmar (Sturgeon 2004). Elena Barabantseva investigated Yao marriage practices among Sino-Vietnamese border communities (Barabantseva 2015). During my own research on the Chinese border regime (Plümmer, forthcoming), I encountered the border practices of these border communities and the fact that they often obtain multiple citizenships. The border residents either have a Chinese passport or one of the neighbouring countries and additionally possess special border passes, enabling them to cross the border without additional visa. Accordingly, their legal status is an exception within the Chinese immigration system which does not allow dual citizenship.
The green border between Yunnan province (China)
and Myanmar (photo: F. Plümmer)
Despite the ability to cross the border legally and as frequently as they need, many of the crossings are informal. The thick rainforest at the Yunnan border allows a lively grey border market with goods and people passing across the green border. If one travels along roads close to the border, the border crossers sometimes travers the border without any signs or check points in sight or even unknowingly. Although formally illegal, this practice is accepted by local authorities as border residents also are a valuable resource to the border economy passing goods and providing labour.
What is a Green Border?
The term ‘green border’ refers to international borders that are not immediately recognized as such and only weakly protected. Often, the green border lies in remote countryside, such as in the case of Yunnan in the thick rainforest of Southeast Asia, thus actually being green. Crossing the ‘green border’ is synonymous for informal border-crossing, i.e. without passport control. The opposite of a green border is a highly secured border such as the North Korean border which is built with fences, barbed wire, and security towers.
With COVID-19, the situation changed considerably. Immigrants and returning Chinese citizens that entered the country after the outbreak were blamed for the emergence of local COVID-19 clusters. In the north-eastern border province of Heilongjiang, in the border city of Suifenhe, infection numbers peaked after Chinese citizens returned from Russia, resulting in a local and border lockdown in early April (BBC News 2020). During the same time in Yunnan, Chinese citizens living in the neighbouring Myanmar tried to travel back to the China despite the local border lockdown which was quickly established on March 31 to prevent further infections (National Health Commission of the PRC 2020). According to an article by China’s government-supported Global Times, the border city of Lincang was one of the go-to places for returning Chinese which resulted in a local lockdown in early April (Global Times 2020). In Xishuangbanna prefecture, border police arrested several people that had been illegally transferred across the border at the end of March (China Daily 2020). Reuters reported on people crossing the border to Baise in Guangxi Province also in March that resulted in them being immediately repatriated to Vietnam (Reuters 2020). These incidents have had consequences also for border residents as border police subsequently militarized the border. Border residents whose livelihoods rely on crossing the border have been facing considerable difficulties as local authorities try to enforce 14-day quarantine. Crossing through the green border no longer is an alternative as it is increasingly under surveillance, guarded by drones and facial recognition systems. If caught informally crossing the border and thus avoiding quarantine measures, the border crossers violate the quarantine policies and risk losing their border residency status, hence, their privilege of relatively free movement across the border and often their only source of income. In many prefectures, voluntary neighbourhood committees are patrolling the border, and informant’s boxes were set-up, where people can anonymously report these cases.
Acting as vanguard in matching pandemic prevention measures with party ideology, the border prefecture of Xishuangbanna has designed a concept of ‘three lines of defence’ against the spread of COVID-19. The first line of defence consists of the border check points, airports and train stations where officials can take the temperature of travellers. The second line of control is the grassroot level where self-controlling residents enforce grid-style social management in every neighbourhood. The third line of control are the newly built hospitals and quarantine zones for infected people (Yunnan News 2020). For the border authorities, it is quite clear that the ‘threat’ of further infections comes from abroad which is why they must battle the incoming risk with all necessary means.
The externalisation of threats and the subsequent militarization of the border to keep the threat outside further illegalizes immigrants and mobilities that have been intricate before already. A large part of the cross-border migration was informal or locally governed, overruled by Beijing’s pandemic politics. If the lockdowns continue, border crossers are increasingly forced into illegality and the trenches within formerly close border communities will deepen.
References cited in the blog:
Barabantseva, Elena V. (2015): From “Customary” to “Illegal”: Yao Ethnic Marriages on the Sino-Vietnamese Border. In Cross-Currents : East Asian History and Culture Review, E-Journal (15), pp. 57–81.
BBC News (2020): As China opens up, a remote border town locks down. Available online at https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-52225475, checked on 8/11/2020.
China Daily (2020): China tightens land borders to contain COVID-19. Available online at https://www.chinadaily.com.cn/a/202004/06/WS5e8b1179a310128217284949.html, checked on 7/7/2020.
Global Times (2020): China-Myanmar border sounds highest alarms to avoid imported COVID-19 cases. Available online at https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1185702.shtml, checked on 7/14/2020.
National Health Commission of the PRC (2020): Yunnan province restricts border crossings into China. Available online at http://en.nhc.gov.cn/2020-04/09/c_78950.htm, checked on 8/11/2020.
Plümmer, Franziska (forthcoming): Regulating the Irregular. Rethinking Authority in China’s Border Regime: Under contract at Amsterdam University Press.
Reuters (2020): China scrambles to plug border gaps as thousands flood home. Available online at https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-china-border/china-scrambles-to-plug-border-gaps-as-thousands-flood-home-idUSKBN21L1B8, checked on 7/7/2020.
Sturgeon, Janet C. (2004): Border Practices, Boundaries, and the Control of Resource Access: A Case from China, Thailand and Burma. In Development and Change 35 (3), pp. 463–484. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-7660.2004.00361.x.
Yunnan News (2020): 云南确诊新型冠状病毒感染病例114例 已设三道防线全力外堵输入 [114 cases of new coronavirus infection diagnosed in Yunnan]. Available online at https://m.yunnan.cn/system/2020/02/03/030580259.shtml, updated on 7/15/2020.000Z, checked on 7/15/2020.
over 22,000 kms
14 neighboring countries
Franziska Plümmer is postdoctoral researcher at the Department of East Asian Studies at the University of Vienna. Her research lies at the intersection of International Relations, critical security studies and China studies. Her doctoral thesis inquired into the Chinese border regime’s regulation practices and is contracted for publication at Amsterdam University Press. Currently, she is working on the impact of digitalization on mobility regulation in China and digital sovereignty.
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