Field notes

Chinese... but not quite

The offspring of China's Vietnamese refugees are trapped in a vicious circle of statelessness

HEKOU (Yunnan) • Although she is already 10 years old, Mr Li Fulin's daughter has never attended a day of school.

She spends her time playing with other children in Laowachang village, located in a hilly terrain along the China-Vietnam border in south-western Yunnan province, while her father frets about her future. "I badly want her to get an education, but it's not possible," Mr Li, 29, told The Straits Times on a muggy June afternoon. "Schools will not accept her."

This is partly because, like her father, the little girl is stateless.

Mr Li and many other Laowachang residents are the offspring of China's biggest group of refugees, who lived across the border in northern Vietnam and fled to China when the Sino- Vietnam war broke out in the late 1970s. To date, this is the only major influx of refugees China has ever taken in, in large part because many of the 300,000 people displaced had Chinese roots, and were trying to escape anti-Chinese discrimination.

China had been praised by the United Nations' refugee agency UNHCR for resettling these refugees, building them homes and giving them jobs on state farms and fisheries in six southern provinces.

Many of them wish to become Chinese citizens. But more than 30 years on, the government has yet to grant them this wish. For refugees living in poorer provinces and remote areas, this adds to the hardship of their daily lives.

Laowachang is one such example. One of the numerous refugee villages that dot the China-Vietnam border, it is home to about 100 families who eke out a living by farming corn and bananas.

Mr Li Fulin took a Vietnamese wife illegally as no Chinese woman would marry him. Their children are therefore considered illegitimate by the state, leading to difficulties enrolling in school.  ST PHOTOS: TEO CHENG WEE

Older residents recall having to trek through the mountains in single file at night to escape Vietnamese soldiers. Yet today, access to the village remains similarly strenuous.

The only way to reach Laowachang, nestled in a valley, is by taking a 25-minute ride on a rocky dirt path accessible only to four-wheel drive vehicles or motorcycles.

Villagers told The Straits Times that their income is so low they can afford meat only during festivities.

"Our village is remote, so it's costly to transport our produce outside to sell," said farmer Zhao Wenjin, 26. "The most we make from farming is a few hundred yuan a month."

Above: Refugee villages near the Vietnam-China border like Laowachang in Yunnan are often impoverished.

Their poverty, lack of education and refugee status have made it nearly impossible for Laowachang villagers to find decent jobs outside, or marry Chinese citizens.

As a result, many Laowachang men, including Mr Li, resort to marrying undocumented Vietnamese women from across the porous border.

Mr Li's illegal marriage makes his daughter illegitimate in the eyes of the law. She is therefore not allowed to attend school even though the authorities have made provisions for refugee children.

Above: Mr Wang Rongshuai, Mr Chen Kaiqiang, and Mr Wang Wuxiang grew up in 189 village, another refugee settlement near the border. 189 still does not have running water.

Unlawful marriages are a growing trend among second-generation Vietnamese refugees in China, noted Beijing-based scholar Liang Shuying, who contributed a chapter on refugees in China in the 2013 academic publication Protection Of Refugees And Displaced Persons In The Asia Pacific Region.

Warning of the social consequences, she wrote: "The children of these illegally married couples would be stateless, which results in a vicious circle."

Prof Liang argues that the refugees should be given Chinese citizenship because they have adapted to China's environment, language and culture, and Vietnam does not want to take them back.

China has been progressively handing out identity cards and hukou, or household registration documents, that entitle refugees to healthcare and welfare, but has stopped short of making them citizens. One reason is that some of them are unable to prove that they originally came from China, said South-east Asian expert Zhuang Guotu from Xiamen University.

Other scholars have suggested that the government does not want to encourage more refugees to come to China.

Despite calls from the international community, setting aside refugees from Vietnam, China has only about 700 refugees on its books, most of them from Somalia and Nigeria, according to UNHCR.

In recent years, thousands fleeing persecution and conflict in Myanmar and North Korea have also sought asylum in China.

But Beijing has sent many of them back, saying that it does not recognise them as refugees.

These broader issues are of lesser concern to those who fled Vietnam. For those who were born in China and have lived here all their lives, it is inexplicable to them that they are still not citizens.

While the identity cards and hukou documents issued to them since 2005 by the county government in Yunnan have offered greater convenience, they still face administrative or bureaucratic hurdles.

Take the case of Mr Wang Rongshuai, who is from "189 village", another refugee village near the China-Vietnam border.

His mother was flung off a motorcycle on a mountainous road near her home a few months ago.

But after Mr Wang rushed her to the hospital they were greeted with bad news: She would not get subsidised treatment.

"We had identification, but the hospital did not recognise it," Mr Wang, 20, told The Straits Times. "Our documents work in some places, but not others. We sometimes find ourselves explaining our situation at length at government departments."

Prof Liang noted that another restriction refugees face is that the identity papers they are given are not valid nationally, which limits where they can find jobs.

Their vulnerability has led experts such as Prof Zhuang to call on the government to look into their plight, and to consider granting them citizenship.

To 22-year-old Wang Wuxiang, who has worked only odd jobs and helped out at home since leaving school at 15, citizenship will not only improve his lot in life but will also help end discrimination.

He remembers being called "si nan min" or "damned refugee" by Chinese children when he was growing up, even though he sees himself as Chinese.

"There's no way I see myself as Vietnamese," he told The Straits Times as he puffed on a cigarette. "I've lived my whole life in China and I don't speak a single word of Vietnamese."

He recognises that his family has come a long way from the days when they fled Vietnam. "When my father and uncle first came, their two families shared only one wok, and often were forced to forage for food in the jungles," he said.

Today, the lives of the two Mr Wangs, who are not related, are better. But 189 village - named after a section of the nearest road - still has no running water. Its location is not marked on most maps, and many families live in homes with cement floors and little furniture.

Becoming a Chinese citizen would make life easier, Mr Wang Wuxiang said. "As refugees in China, we have been welcomed in some ways, like someone marrying into another family," he told The Straits Times. "But without citizenship, we will always feel like an outsider."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 16, 2016, with the headline 'Chinese... but not quite'. Print Edition | Subscribe