Written by Alessandro Rippa.

Over the last few weeks a number of events have drawn attention, once again, to the issue of illegal border crossing out of the People’s Republic of China. Some of these events were tragic, like the deadly clash between a group of Uyghurs and Vietnamese border guards, while others rather bizarre, like the case of a Hmong man from northern Vietnam who, after escaping from a brutal Chinese employer and without speaking any Mandarin, traveled thousands of miles across China ending up in the north of Pakistan, where he was taken into custody and eventually sent to his native country.

Such episodes are not rare. Readers may remember the story of three Uyghurs who were caught by Indian forces in Ladakh, after they had illegally crossed the Sino-Indian (contested) border. Driven by extreme poverty at home – Kargilik, in south Xinjiang – the three men told Indian authorities that they were heading toward India looking for a better life after being inspired by Bollywood movies. According to the Indian press, the three were only carrying food, knives and a small map likely cut out of a Uyghur-language school textbook.

For those who have travelled to some of those areas, both in Western and Southern China, tales of illegal crossing are probably not unheard of. In Xinjiang, for instance, I was told an interesting story by the Chinese Kyrgyz (柯尔克孜族) living in the area of the Karakul Lake, halfway between Kashgar and the Pakistani border along the Karakoram Highway. The area, today an important touristic destination, lies about 30 miles away from the Tajik border. While I was there, Chinese Kyrgyz shepherds around the lake lamented that other Kyrgyz from nearby Tajikistan often entered illegally the Chinese border at night-time in order to rob their sheep. Notwithstanding the anecdotal form of this account, it is nevertheless significant in the way it expresses the emblematic – and perhaps inevitable – porousness of this border.

Unlike the kind Kyrgyz shepherds I have met, China’s concerns don’t have much to do with sheep robberies, but rather the entry of illegal goods (drugs, weapons) and the transnational movements of people like asylum seekers and, as recently reported, Uyghur terrorists. In this sense in October last year, during an official visit to Xinjiang, Chinese Defence Minister Chang Wanquan called for a “strengthened border and national defense in northwest China’s Xinjiang”, and “asked military units to further consolidate border defense and cast ‘a wall of copper and steel’ in the frontier”.

Similar remarks are neither new nor uncommon, yet China’s approach to its borderlands is not unilateral. On the very same day of Minister Chang’s speech in Urumqi, the Chinese ambassador in Pakistan during a visit to Gulmit, in the upper Hunza region, “emphasized the importance of developing communities in the border region, terming it to be in the interest of both the Chinese and Pakistani governments”. The day before, during a gathering in Karimabad, the ambassador also remarked that “the development of the Xinjiang autonomous region will have positive impact on the socio-economic uplift of the Hunza Valley in particular and Gilgit-Baltsitan, in general”.

These different statements somehow show the complexity with which the Chinese government is looking at its westernmost borders. On one hand borders have to be strictly controlled, preventing any destabilizing factor from entering Xinjiang. On the other hand, Chinese officials in Beijing and Islamabad seem to be well aware that such goal can be achieved only through careful collaboration with authorities and communities on the other side of those borders. In the case of the Xinjiang-Pakistan border area this collaboration is focused on the idea of development, a strategy apparently based on China’s policies in Xinjiang itself. Behind this acknowledgment, I believe, lies the important realization that in such environment not only borders cannot be completely sealed and successfully patrolled, but also that ideas and influences cannot be prevented from spreading in both directions. The future stability of the Chinese borderlands, Beijing seems thus to acknowledge, is strictly connected with the situation in the adjacent regions outside of its borders. In this sense one can understand the moves made by Chinese leaders toward Pakistan and Central Asia in the most recent years as both a way to extend their economic influence, and prevent any trouble in Xinjiang. As Laruelle and Peyrouse put it in their recent work on China and Central Asia:

“The Karakoram Highway between the Pakistani port of Gwadar and Chinese Xinjiang does not at all modify trans-Eurasian commerce, since the flows remain minimal, but it facilitates access to the products of remote Pakistani mountain regions. The pattern of development is similar for the Sino-Tajik trade, as well as some border connections between Central Asia and Xinjiang. The aim is not to influence large international trade flows, which would be unrealistic, but to provide isolated populations with tools for development”. (The Chinese Question in Central Asia, p. 62).

Development on both sides of the border thus represents a major Chinese strategy for securing the border regions. Development, however, does not seem to be achievable without connectivity, and thus road construction and implementation become major aspects of this project. This approach stresses an apparent contradiction. Chinese policy in the area somehow seems to acknowledge that the inherent “danger” of borders is not due to their ability to separate, but rather to their connective character. The state’s concern, thus, is not with what borders “keep out”, but rather with what they cannot prevent from “coming in”. In order to achieve security, China’s strategy has thus moved from a policy of sealed border to one of increased connectivity, of which the Karakoram Highway is one good example.

Eventually, when it comes to Xinjiang, it must be pointed out that although China’s impressive displacement of military force along its borders does not seem to keep people away from trying to cross them, state’s efforts haven’t been just unsuccessful. In various conversations I’ve had with dozens of Pakistani traders, I was repeatedly told that, at least since 2001, illegal trade was out of the question along the Karakoram Highway. China’s concerns with Uyghur militants in Pakistan and the ongoing war in Afghanistan have brought stricter measures of control. Traders used to hide drugs and other illegal items inside of their cargos, sometimes within a bunch of rolled up carpets. Now, on the other hand, custom officials are known to be extremely strict, to the extent that that they check every single carpet, a process that could take even a couple of weeks. 

Most were however aware of other routes. Many, particularly, pointed to China’s porous southern borders. That’s where traders, both Pakistani and Uyghurs, knew of illegal activities going on, from smuggling drugs to trafficking humans. But this is a story for another post, or perhaps for another Ph.D. research.

Alessandro Rippa is a Crossroads Asia Visiting Fellow at Ludwig Maximilians University of Munich, and a Ph.D. student in Social Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen. Alessandro is a CPI Blog Emerging Scholar and tweets @AlessandroRippa. Image by Alessandro Rippa.