China, which has recently closed its border with Myanmar amid a wave of COVID-19 cases, is enforcing the closure with a newly built barbed-wire fence spanning around 600 kilometers between Ruili, Lijiang, and the Gaoligong mountains in its southwestern province of Yunnan, local residents told RFA.
The fence, which has been under construction for nearly a year, is close to being finished, and was built by the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to stem cross-border flows of people wanting to evade immigration checkpoints.
Recent photos posted to the social media platform Weibo showed the fence snaking across a mountainous region near Ruili, with lights along it during the hours of darkness.
“This is to prevent illegal border crossings,” a resident of a border town in Yunnan surnamed Ma told RFA. “Lots of Chinese people leave the country this way without papers, and when they come back … they will also cross back illegally.”
“That’s what the barbed-wire fence is for,” he said.
The Gaoligong mountain range straddles the 2,000-kilometer border between China and Myanmar, rising to more than 5,000 meters above sea level.
A businessman surnamed Zhang with ties to Ruili said ethnic minority groups whose traditional homelands are on both sides of the border would use lesser-known paths through the mountainous border region to cross into Myanmar.
“Cross-border ethnic minorities would go from China to Myanmar, maybe smuggling goods, or to learn about Christianity or Buddhism,” Zhang said. “Some would go through legal immigration channels and some wouldn’t, but they were going to Myanmar to attend seminaries.”
“So the border wall is effectively blocking off the routes used for underground religious infiltration into China,” he said. “When foreign religions are preaching to people in China across the border from Myanmar, that’s overseas religious infiltration,” he said.
‘They are all building walls’
Ma said walls are also under construction along an 800-kilometer stretch of border between Yunnan’s Xishuangbanna region, Ruili, and Lincang.
“They are all building walls,” he said, adding that the new walls and fences will also prevent Myanmar soldiers and militia members from casually slipping across the border into China to go shopping and to meet up with friends.
According to Zhang, Ruili has long been a favorite exit point for Chinese people wanting to flee China, heading for Thailand.
“They need to get from Ruili to Lincang, and from there to Kokang [on the Myanmar side],” Zhang said. “There is a road — on the Chinese side of the border — that’s used by Myanmar militia convoys to transport arms and drugs.”
“That’s the road they use … it starts at a Chinese county town but I don’t know the exact route,” he said.
Trafficking drugs, guns
The Chinese authorities were clearly unhappy with drug and gun-smuggling into China, Zhang said.
“People from Myanmar sometimes bring drugs and guns into Ruili to commit crimes,” he said. “This has caused security issues for Ruili, and it’s been going on for many years now.”
He said previous walls and barriers had “many holes.”
The CCP is also worried that a roaring arms trade linked to ongoing ethnic armed conflict in Myanmar means that weapons are finding their way across the border, and into the hands of Chinese citizens.
“China is getting more cautious,” Zhang said. “I heard recently that a couple of Chinese anti-communist militias had appeared in northern Myanmar, and that maybe there are other anti-communist militias too.”
“So this could be the main reason for the CCP to speed up construction of the border wall,” he said.
Recent social media posts have mentioned a rumored anti-communist force known as the V Brigade, but RFA has been unable to verify such reports.
Cross-border trade halted
Twenty-five counties in Yunnan province share a border with Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam, along a a 4,060-kilometer stretch of China’s national border in the region.
The China-Myanmar border measures nearly 2,000-kilometers, with the Sino-Vietnamese border running to more than 1,000 kilometers.
China this week suspended cross-border trade, leaving more than 1,000 trucks stranded on the Myanmar side, sources in Myanmar told RFA on Thursday.
Around 1,300 trucks carrying rice, beans, onions, and dried fish were stuck at Qing Xian Jao, a rice merchant on the Muse border said.
Recent outbreaks of COVID-19 in Muse on the Myanmar side had led to a rise in the number of cases of infection in the Chinese border towns of Ruili and Jiegao, and traders said that a 21-day lockdown was already in force in those towns.
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