Cracking Down and Opening Up

With a few large doses of harsh rhetoric, Chinese state media has announced a public security crackdown on illegal foreigners across the country. Border officials in Yanji promptly announced that in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture the campaign would be even longer and deeper, lasting 150 days. Clearly both the national campaign and the local variant will have serious consequences for North Koreans living in China or trying to transit through the country.

While the rhetoric about more border controls may be stronger than before, in many ways a crackdown in Yanbian represents a mere deepening of an existing trend. New national passports were issued on March 15th, but within a month Yanji Public Security Bureau (PSB) was besieged with reports of damaged or missing passports, perhaps a sign that those who trade in fake documents were trying to figure out how to circumvent the latest regulations. Also in March, Yanbian media announced that local security officials would be surveying more or less every domicile in Yanji to find illegal renters, posing the whole thing as an exercise in real estate management. It did not require a national campaign for Yanbian police to start checking documents prior to boarding any regional buses in downtown Yanji; they’ve been doing that since March. Regulations for anyone buying train tickets bound for Beijing were even stricter; one first had to get permission at the local Public Security Bureau.

However, the new campaign does promise an expansion of state regulation over foreign laborers. China Daily summarized the focus on illegal workers in Yanbian as a way to “protect other foreigners’ legal rights” and further assure “social stability” in Yanbian. Put in the context of a larger debate about North Korean labor in China, this is a significant step. It now appears that, as was suggested in a groundbreaking article recently published in Economic Observer, North Korean guest workers will be allowed to live in provinces like Liaoning and cities like Hunchun on a somewhat more stable footing.

A few incidents in the last year in the Yanbian region have been cited as further impetus for the crackdown: a drug trafficking episode in May 2011 and a more recent robbery by a North Korean defector on the Chinese side of the Tumen. These incidents and their public framing build upon a cluster of reports from last June by zealous frontier-defending editors in Beijing which depicted North Korean defectors and border-crossers as dangerous irritants to Chinese border residents. Not only that, but given the conspicuous absence of North Korean delegations and cultural performances from Yanbian, the local population is primed to see North Koreans in a harsh light. The recent hostage-taking by North Korean naval personnel of Chinese boats in the Yellow Sea does not lend itself to the provision of a warm welcome for defectors from the citizens of China’s three northeastern provinces.

The irony is that, from the standpoint of advocates for defector rights in China, the country has, overall, made great strides since March in unleashing powerful and even sympathetic discussions of North Korean refugees within its borders. The phrase “defector” (“talbukja” in Korean) has finally entered the Chinese official press lexicon (replacing the “illegal border crosser”, if usually only in quotation marks), and there has been a great widening of the parameters of the defector issue in Chinese.

Notably, Talbukja were the subject of a long March 15th cover story in Phoenix Weekly, a Beijing-friendly magazine in Hong Kong which has the distinction of being sometimes cited by KCNA. As with many other things, this magazine content then bled into mainland mass media markets, exposing Chinese audiences for the first time to Barbara Demick’s work, now translated into Chinese. Chinese “Wikipedia”-like pages about defectors are now available via Baidu. Movies like “Crossing” have made inroads with Chinese audiences, too, and when Eunsun Kim published her memoir, although written in French, the book got publicity in China.

The fact that discussions in China still ignore such basic questions as Chinese food aid to the Kim regime, not to mention North Korea’s vast system of prison camps, should not turn us from the fact that the discussions exist. The public discussion in China about defectors has expanded and can finally said to have planted some roots in Chinese “civil society.”

However, it appears that Beijing is using this discursive opening mainly to bring about a freer hand with expressing displeasure at North Korea. China is hinting that it may be willing to make yet more exceptions to its own rules about refoulement which could be both embarrassing and harmful to North Korea.

China-North Korean disputes over the spring 2012 missile launch might have been the straw that broke the camel’s back regarding the defector issue in the Chinese media, but they did not go so far as to open up a similar discussion about the human rights abuses faced by defectors who are detained by Chinese police. And, even as Chinese were reading Barbara Demick, provincial security organizations in northeast China, possibly in collaboration with North Korean agencies, were arresting Kim Young Hwan in Liaoning, silencing his considerable voice.

For every portrait in the Chinese media of a defector who needs help or who lived in legal limbo for years in the People’s Republic of China, there is another story implying that South Korean organizations are illegally working underground in the Northeast and seeking to subvert the Chinese state. The current crackdown in Yanbian will put further pressure on organizations and individuals. China wants North Korea to “reform,” but this condition places no obligations whatever on the Chosun Workers’ Party to slow the pace of political repression. China should be applauded for opening the public discussion of talbukja, but it does need to follow up with less repression and more genuine commitment to the human rights of refugees.

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