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."
Without even telling his parents, Shi traveled with some other recruited emigrants to Guangzhou (formerly Canton), where they were installed in a cheap hotel.
"They took our ID cards away so we couldn't leave," he said. A few days later, he and 100 other travelers were taken in a truck "fit for pigs" to a port outside Guangzhou. They were then transported by small boat to a rusting cargo ship.
Shi said the ship's 500 illegal passengers were kept in cargo holds 50 feet below deck with no access to the surface. Every two days, a small ration of rice was lowered from above. The passengers were each given one bottle of mineral water a week. A large basin of water was left in each hold for a toilet. But the same water was also used for cooking.
Because of his background as a mechanic, Shi said, he was taken above deck to repair a generator. There he discovered that most of the North Korean crew had been thrown overboard by the smugglers.
Before being thrown into the sea, one of the crew managed to send an SOS from the bridge, Shi said. The 24-day ordeal ended when the ship was intercepted by Navy vessels 1,000 nautical miles east of Hawaii.
After being transported to Kwajalein atoll in the Marshall Islands, the passengers were fed and returned by air to Fujian.
"When we landed on the island, it was the first time in weeks that we felt like human beings again," Shi said.
Guards Open Fire
Electrician Liu's experience was even worse. Like Shi, he was approached by a friend with an offer of travel to the United States. He would pay for the travel by working as a sort of indentured servant for two years.
Liu said his journey consisted of 40 days with 230 other emigrants in the frozen-fish container of a stinking fishing boat. Before the boat reached the American coast, it was intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard and diverted to Honduras.
Late one night, Liu said, the electricity in the prison camp went out and the Honduran military guards opened fire, killing one Chinese and wounding eight.
"I never knew the reason," he said. "They just began shooting."
Upon his forced return to Fujian, Liu vowed "never to sail on a ship again as long as I live."
Gao Liqin was less fortunate. The 39-year-old mother of two from Changle made it to New York by air using a fake U.S. passport. But after paying $30,000 to the snake heads, she was kidnaped, raped and beaten to death by men trying to extort even more money from her family.
On a recent afternoon, grief-stricken family members, including the two children she left behind, met with a reporter in their Changle home.
Gao's relatives said they paid a ransom--$5,000 in U.S. currency--at a drop point in Fuzhou, the Fujian capital. But the kidnapers killed her anyway, strangling Gao with a telephone cord.
"This extortion is a new problem that has emerged from the illegal immigration problem," said Li, the Changle deputy mayor. "We started noticing it beginning last year. There are many cases like Gao Liqin. The problem is that most people don't report it. They just pay the money and never tell the police."
U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service officials in Southern California likewise have noticed an upsurge in kidnaping and extortion of smuggled Chinese coming through the region en route to New York.
Longtime drug-smuggling rings have switched to human cargo and hire increasingly maverick gangs as "muscle" to exact payment, said Jorge Guzman, who heads the INS anti-smuggling unit in Los Angeles.
Two weeks ago, INS and local law enforcement officials in the San Gabriel Valley arrested five men connected with the Gao Liqin case, Guzman said.
In addition, two badly beaten Chinese immigrants were discovered cowering in a West Covina back yard last month after escaping from kidnapers trying to extort payment from them.
"This is not unique," Guzman said. "This has been happening. We're always hearing about it way after the fact."
Immigration attorneys in Los Angeles and San Francisco say they hear similar tales but that the stories are secondhand and hard to verify or put into perspective.
"I would guess a lot of people are scared, so they don't report it to legal authorities or immigration centers," said Carolyn La, an attorney with the Asian Pacific American Legal Center in Los Angeles.
Angelo Ancheta, executive director of the Asian Law Caucus in San Francisco, observed of the reports of smuggler extortion: "Those are anecdotes you pick up on, but I haven't heard of that as a trend."
As for Gao's case, it came to the attention of New York police after a co-worker in a garment district sweatshop reported her missing.
"What happened cannot be blamed on the U.S.," said the slain woman's younger brother. "It was some Chinese gangs that did it. They were gang [members] when they lived here."
Times special correspondent Geoffrey Mohan in Los Angeles contributed to this report.