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Chinese Exodus to U.S. Apparently Slowing : Emigration: In the south, wave that began in '89 seems to have ebbed. The reasons include official campaign and grisly tales about trips that went awry.

October 23, 1995|RONE TEMPEST | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CHANGLE, China — The rocky shore and secluded coves of Fujian province have served for centuries as this nation's clandestine gateway to the West. More than 24 million overseas Chinese living in 50 countries began their voyages from here or neighboring Guangdong province on this southern coast.

The Fujianese are China's wandering tribe--its Phoenicians, Vikings, Jews. Almost every household here has relatives living abroad. Countless Chinese Americans, descendants of those who built railroads and dug for gold in the Sierra Nevada, trace their ancestry here.

But for many in this historic launching point to the United States, the American Dream has lost some of its allure. A wave of emigration that began in 1989 appears to have ebbed.

"Fewer people dare to take the risk anymore. It's worse than dying," said Liu Zuoqing, 30, a Fujian electrician whose own attempt to reach the United States last year ended in a Honduran prison camp, where he says he witnessed one of his fellow emigres shot to death and eight other men wounded by military guards.

Similar tales of hardship and cruelty at the hands of smugglers and captors are repeated by returned would-be emigrants; some were captured at sea by U.S. authorities and repatriated to China.

And, in a disturbing trend, those who make it to America's shores report cases of extortion, violence and even murder--crimes committed by U.S.-based Chinese gangsters who telephone and demand money from relatives in Fujian.

As a result, local officials claim that they have seen a significant decline in the surge of illegal emigration that sent thousands of Chinese on quests to reach the New World.

"The problem is diminishing," Changle Deputy Mayor Li Yixing said. "The situation has improved a lot."

Li, one of the dynamic new breed of Chinese leaders, who hands visitors glossy civic promotional brochures in English and Chinese, credits a massive government education campaign for the decline.

No Golden Dream

After the tragic--and, to China, embarrassing--1993 beaching of the Golden Venture smuggling ship on Long Island, N.Y., in which 10 people died trying to swim ashore, local officials launched an aggressive campaign against "snake heads"--local jargon for human smugglers.

Dozens of accused smugglers have been arrested and imprisoned. Failed, contrite emigrants are featured in television and radio testimonials. Propaganda posters warn of snake heads who, promising riches abroad, demand $20,000 to $30,000 per person in smuggling fees.

"Usually these people are unsuccessful," said Lin Yigeng, the Communist Party secretary in Dahong, one of the smaller communities in the Changle municipal district. "Those who make it to America find it is not at all as they imagined. They've lost all the money they made here, and they fail to earn money there."

Still, no one pretends to have completely stopped the flow. The main result of the crackdown and horror stories is that fewer people are opting to leave by boat. Those with enough money have a better chance of making it to the United States by flying first to Central America or the Caribbean; a major channel has been detected flowing through Puerto Rico.

The prospect of a better life in the United States still has powerful appeal in this area of China, where many overseas Chinese return often to flaunt their wealth. The hillsides of Changle and smaller townships are dotted with homes owned by overseas Chinese. Dahong lists its population as 63,000, including 18,000 overseas Chinese who are part-time residents.

Li, the Changle deputy mayor, estimates that the overseas Chinese community contributes $100 million annually to the local economy. With a population of 650,000, the Changle community has 70,000 international phone lines, almost as many as the huge cities of Beijing and Shanghai.

Success stories abound. But the recent wave of emigration to the United States spotlighted by the Golden Venture case is also filled with shattered dreams.

Longing for a Meal

After three weeks in the hold of a creaking cargo ship where the water supply doubled as a toilet, Shi Jiancheng, 24, said he lost 50 pounds. "I told the smugglers that I was willing to die if they would give me just one good meal," he recalled. Shi, who dreamed of becoming an automobile mechanic in California, never even made it to North America. His ship was intercepted by the U.S. Navy in the mid-Pacific.

Shi, the tall, unmarried son of a schoolteacher in Dahong, is now able to recall his ordeal with a smile. "I was working in a car shop in Fuzhou," he said, "when a friend came and told me I could make a lot more money doing the same thing in the United States.

"He said I could make $2,000 a month. Since I was only making about $150 here, that sounded good. He said I wouldn't need any money to go, that I could pay the snake head back when I got my wages in America."

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