In the midst of several domestic and international issues, China reacts to its connection to the deaths of irregular Vietnamese immigrants in the UK.

On Oct. 24, 39 irregular immigrants were found dead in the container of a truck in Essex, UK. Apparently victims of a human trafficking network, the deceased were initially identified as Chinese nationals. Upon further investigation, it became clear that they were Vietnamese holding fake Chinese passports given to them by their traffickers. The incident started a debate about global human trafficking networks leading to Europe and the European countries’ treatment of irregular migration. 

The Chinese state, media and social media also reacted to the incident at different stages. When the victims were thought to be Chinese nationals, the media and some on social media reacted defensively claiming that the West was trying to shift the blame onto China. Since the Huawei crisis, Hong Kong protests and the looming trade war with the US, China’s public opinion is particularly sensitive to the way the Western media, social and state actors react to matters related to China. There have already been two nationalist uproars last week: When the manager of the Houston Rockets tweeted in support of the Hong Kong protests, CCTV, China’s state broadcasting agency, temporarily froze its subscription to the NBA in retaliation, and won the hearts of Chinese nationalist netizens. Similarly, the banning of Quentin Tarantino’s latest movie, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”, for allegedly humiliating Bruce Lee was a welcomed development in online public opinion.

Nationalist, and at times xenephobic reactions seem to dominate Chinese social media. However, multiple research outcomes reveal that these reactions might be the first and most vocal ones to surface, but they do not constitute the majority of opinions expresssed online. Besides,  attitude surveys reveal that nationalist and anti-Western attitudes are not broadly representative. The majority of public opinion is rather concerned about the livelihood of people and see international developments within this context. 

This is what happend in the case of the Vietnamese migrants as well. Those who were not preoccupied with the Western framing of the event were puzzled about the perilious way the Vietnamese migrants dared to travel to the UK. “What makes one brave such conditions to migrate?!” a self-identified middle-class weibo user asked. “Chinese don’t migrate in these conditions”, another one claimed. 

It may be confusing to see how shocked the new middle classes of reform-era China are about immigration networks and pathways given the long history of Chinese out-migration to Southeast Asia, America and to a lesser extend, to Europe.

Indeed, when the victims were still thought of as Chinese nationals, the experts thought they must have used the migration routes stemming from Fujian, the southeastern province of China known to facilitate waves of migration from China throughout history. 

The migration patterns for  contemporary Chinese seem to have changed though. Reports by migrant NGOs reveal that thenumber of irregular Chinese migrants trafficked into the UK has dropped in recent decades, aside from some who arrive by plane and are forced into slave labor to pay back their gambling debts. This is definitely a demographic change from the early reform era, Mao era or the early twentieth century. So, the middle class Chinese might have a point in the end.

The Missing Migrants portal provided by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) tracks deaths along migratory routes. Asia has recently reported the least number of migrant deaths. And those death in the course of migration from Asia concetrate heavily on the Middle East and South Asia. The international community and the EU have also focused on the refugees from these two regions in the last decade. Therefore, the deaths of Vietnamese migrants caught the migration professionals unprepared as well. The IOM organizes campaigns in Africa, South America and South Asia to deter irregular migration, pointing out the perils of human trafficking but there is no recent campaign targeting the Southeast Asian population.

Back to China. When it became clear that the victims were not Chinese, but Vietnamese on fake Chinese passports, the worries of the Chinese state and public opinion changed. Now the concern was to be blamed for facilitating the human trafficking routes from Asia to Europe.

The spokesperson of the Chinese foreign ministry announced China’s willingness to cooperate with international agencies to track down the human trafficking networks, albeit with a warning against ‘preconceptions or subjective attitudes’. This rather vague statement means China is concerned about being inadvertently perceived as an accomplice to the process, since the fake passports were delivered to the Vietnamese migrants in Beijing.

No fingers have been pointed by the time this column was written. China is a party to the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, and its reception of the Vietnamese refugees in 1977-78 is seen as an example of good practice. While China does not accept refugees anymore, it supports the adoption of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration and it has issued two national plans of action to combat trafficking. Especially mail-order brides from Vietnam and more recently Pakistan, is a growing issue for China.

China demonstrates willingness for international cooperation as a destination country that receives irregular migrants. However, it is both a destination and a source country. China is still listed third on IOM’s out-migration database, after Albania and Vietnam, even if its numbers are less than half the size of those two.

The reason for China’s high migration numbers is the significant income and wealth inequality in the country, despite significant overall economic growth rates for decades. Even the high growth rates cannot be taken for granted anymore. Last week, China witnessed a first in its economic history: The growth rate in last quarter of 2019, 6%, was lower than the annual target of 6.2%. While the average growth rate for the year still meets the target, the difference in the state media coverage of the recent GDP rates reveals concerns. Global Times, the English-language outlet of the Chinese state media focused on the low GDP rate in the last quarter and blamed the trade war with the US. People’s Daily, the Chinese-language official media, on the other hand, focused on the overall GDP growth that meets the annual target. The latter was delivered for the consumption of domestic public onion that was already expressing worries about soaring housing prices.

The CCP is holding its fourth plenum by the time this column was written. There is no news leaked so far, but rumors only. A policy document that was released just before the closed-door meeting (re)defines the moral framework of citizenship for the Chinese society amidst a myriad of concerns domestically and internationally. Every new development, such as irregular migration, is seen against the backdrop of these concerns.