The sun was already high by the time Long and Wang stepped out of their simple wooden shack and set out on their daily patrol. For nearly a year, the pair have lived and worked out of this small, weatherworn building, tasked with protecting China’s southwestern border against the spread of COVID-19. For the most part, the work is more exhausting than dangerous, but on this particular day Long and Wang received a scare: a black plastic bag found lying at the foot of the tall iron wall separating China and Myanmar.
They were worried; they’d heard another patrol had recently found a bag containing drugs. If any problems arise on their section of the border, Long’s employer, a state-owned bank in the nearby city of Ruili, would be held responsible. If that happens, Long’s job could be on the line. Peeking inside, their anxiety gave way to relief: The bag contained only dirty clothes.
“On our patrols, we often pick up things that were left by people on the Myanmar side of the border,” Long told me. “Sometimes it’s food; other times, it’s sundries — all sorts, really. Thankfully, we’ve never come across drugs before.” (To protect the identities of my research participants, I have given them all pseudonyms.)
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Long isn’t a border guard by training. Prior to the pandemic, he pushed papers in urban Ruili. Late last year, however, his workplace told him to pack his things and move to this remote agricultural village. Now, in his new capacity as the village’s “chief of joint defense,” Long is responsible for overseeing a 2.7 km stretch of the nearby border.
Ruili used to be one of the most important ports of entry along the 2,186-kilometer border between Myanmar and the southwestern province of Yunnan. Prior to the pandemic, the border between the two countries was largely porous, with more than 70,000 Myanmar citizens officially registered as living in the city. The real number, including undocumented immigrants, was likely higher.
The pandemic — and China’s continued commitment to eliminating COVID-19 domestically — brought that to a sudden halt. Burmese living and working in Ruili without the proper paperwork were forced to return home, while even many Myanmar citizens with valid entry and exit permits have been unable to renew them.
Enforcing this new regime has posed a huge challenge for Ruili’s relatively small municipal government. But enforce it they must: Local officials have come under fire on multiple occasions for failing to stop people from illegally entering or exiting China.
In response, Ruili has reinforced its border defenses, making what was originally a crude iron fence taller and sturdier and adding high-res surveillance cameras and new alarm systems.
A banner posted on the China-Myanmar border wall in Ruili, Yunnan province, February 2022. The banner promises rewards for those who turn in undocumented immigrants and punishments for anyone who helps them. Courtesy of the author
It has also mobilized local government offices and state-owned enterprises and tasked them with safeguarding designated sections of the border. Each office or enterprise is responsible for staffing its designated section — and can be held responsible for any illegal crossings within that area.
In September 2020, as Ruili’s anti-COVID measures reached a peak, all employees of local government or state-owned work units were expected to contribute to border control and enforcement. Although many of these ad hoc border guards were eventually replaced by army veterans hired for the purpose, each section of the border still requires one or two representatives to coordinate patrols and other duties.
That’s how Long found himself uprooted from his cushy city job and living in a small weatherboard shack. Half a year into his tour, he now spends much of his free time marking the days until his next home leave.
Other mobilized workers patrol the city itself. The majority of Ruili’s remaining Burmese nationals reside in a few well-established communities, and every time the city imposes a lockdown — five times by the official count, nine according to most residents — government and state-owned enterprise workers are sent to visit each household in these neighborhoods to ensure they are not housing any undocumented immigrants.
Ying, a 41-year-old government worker and native of Ruili, has been on many such trips, which can involve anything from cursory visits to checking under beds and in closets. At first, many of those targeted by these raids pushed back, but the grinding lockdowns soon took their toll on the resistance, as people were forced to choose between cooperating and the prospect of the city never reopening.
“In the beginning, we had trouble getting used to these investigations in our home,” a Ruili-based jeweler told me. “But if they don’t find sources of contagion, the city will be on lockdown indefinitely. By the time it would have lifted, I’d have starved to death. So, it’s better to comply.”
But the family structures and deep cross-border ties found in a city like Ruili make strict enforcement difficult. In one home, Ying encountered a 14-year-old Burmese girl who was completely undocumented. The septagenarian Chinese woman looking after her told Ying that she had picked the girl up from the side of the road 14 years ago, and didn’t know how to register her or get her valid identity documents.
“The old woman was swearing to the heavens that this girl had been in Ruili since she was little, and hadn’t been smuggled in during the pandemic,” Ying recalled. “She spoke through tears, telling us that this girl was her only grandchild and that we couldn’t send her back to Myanmar.”
“Had we sent her back, the old woman surely wouldn’t have survived,” she added. “The girl from Myanmar couldn’t even speak Burmese and didn’t know anyone in her country of birth. She wouldn’t have been able to survive, either.” In the end, Ying and her team were able to obtain a temporary residence permit for the young woman so that — for now, at least — she can stay in China.
“In Ruili, there are so many incidents like this,” Ying told me. “We have to use discretion when dealing with these cases. Both Chinese and Burmese people deserve equal respect. If we sever the ties between people then it’ll only create more problems in the future.”
Ying is far from the only person in Ruili to feel this way. Many Ruili residents are grateful for the contributions made to the city by Myanmar nationals, and it’s common for the two populations to form close bonds as neighbors and coworkers. A civil servant in Ruili, Xiong, told me that some of the students at the elementary school where he works are from Myanmar, as are a number of his neighbors.
“Myanmar is in such turmoil at the moment,” he said. “If you force these people to return there and they can’t find employment, how will they feed themselves?”
A jade market in Ruili, Yunnan province, February 2022. Courtesy of the author
As the pandemic drags on, however, not everyone is sympathetic to the city’s dwindling migrant population. Shan, who works for the local government, arrived in Ruili in 2019. When the pandemic broke out only a short while later, she was assigned to monitor the residents of a Burmese neighborhood in the city. The work is stressful, and that stress has exacerbated the cultural conflicts between her and the people she is tasked with monitoring.
“We don’t dare turn off our phones in the evenings, because the residents in my quarter might call and ask questions at any moment,” she told me. In lockdowns, so-called grid workers like Shan are responsible for just about every interaction that takes place in their sector, from approving hospital visits to keeping the peace. “These Burmese people are difficult to manage as well: They often don’t pick up their phones and they’re hard to find when you need them. We often have to run from one house to another to track people down.”
When Ruili went into lockdown for the first time, in 2020, Ying thought it would last a week at most. Little did she know that it was just the first of many, with still no end in sight. “The lockdowns are getting longer and longer. It feels like it’ll never end,” she said, although the latest relaxation policies have given her some hope.
Many of my interviewees still cling to their memories of Ruili as it used to be: a thriving, diverse inland port. “Ruili is a tenacious city,” Xiong told me. “If you give it space, it’ll grow quickly. That’s thanks to the many years of hard work that its residents, including our friends from Myanmar, have put in.”
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Barriers outside a temple in Ruili, Yunnan province, February 2022. Courtesy of the author)