Gao Zhibin and his daughter left Beijing on Feb. 24 for a better life, a safer one. Over the next 35 days, by airplane, train, boat, bus and foot, they traveled through nine countries. By the time they touched American soil in late March, Mr. Gao had lost 30 pounds.
The most harrowing part of their journey was trekking through the brutal jungle in Panama known as the Darién Gap. On the first day, said Mr. Gao, 39, he had sunstroke. The second day, his feet swelled. Dehydrated and weakened, he threw away his tent, a moisture-resistant sleeping pad and his change of clothes.
Then his 13-year-old daughter got sick. She lay on the ground, vomiting, with her face pale, her forehead feverish, her hands on her stomach. Mr. Gao said he thought she might have drunk dirty water. Dragging themselves through the muddy, treacherous rainforests of the Darién Gap, they took a break every 10 minutes. They didn’t get to their destination, a camp site in Panama, until 9 p.m.
Mr. Gao said he felt he had no choice but to leave China.
“I think we will only be safe by coming to the U.S.,” he said, adding that he believed that Xi Jinping, China’s leader, could lead the country to famine and possibly war. “It’s a rare opportunity to protect me and my family,” he said.
A growing number of Chinese have entered the United States this year through the Darién Gap, exceeded only by Venezuelans, Ecuadoreans and Haitians, according to Panamanian immigration authorities.
It is a dangerous route once used mostly by Cubans and Haitians, and to a lesser extent people from Nepal, India, Cameroon and Congo. The Chinese are fleeing the world’s second-largest economy.
Educated and affluent Chinese are migrating through legal channels, such as education and work visas, to escape bleak economic prospects and political oppression — motivations shared by the Darién Gap émigrés.
Most of them followed a playbook circulating on social media: Cross the border through the Darién Gap, surrender to U.S. border control officers, get detained in immigration jails, and apply for asylum citing a credible fear if returned to China. Many will be released within days. When their asylum applications are accepted, they can work and make a new life in the United States.
Their flight is a referendum on the rule of Mr. Xi, now in his third five-year term. Boasting that “the East is rising while the West is declining,” he said in 2021 that China’s governance model had proved superior to Western democratic systems and that the center of gravity of the world economy was shifting “from West to East.”
Every immigrant I interviewed this year who passed through the Darién Gap — a journey known as zouxian, or walking the line, in Chinese — came from a lower middle-class background. They said that they feared falling into poverty if the Chinese economy worsened, and that they could no longer see a future for themselves or their children in their home country.
In Mr. Xi’s China, anyone could become a target of the state. You could get in trouble for being a Christian, Muslim, Uyghur, Tibetan or Mongolian. Or a worker who petitions for back pay, a homeowner who protests the delayed completion of an unfinished apartment, a student who uses a virtual private network for access to Instagram access or a Communist Party cadre who is found with a copy of a banned book.
More than 24,000 Chinese migrants were temporarily detained on the southern border of the United States in the 2023 fiscal year, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Over the previous decade, fewer than 15,000 Chinese migrants were caught crossing the southern border illegally.
The surge of desperate Chinese braving the Darién Gap is a reversal of a longtime pattern.
In the 1980s and 1990s, millions of Chinese migrated to developed countries, including the United States, for higher living standards and freer societies. As China’s economy took off in the early 2000s and the government relented on some control of its society, a vast majority of Chinese students returned to their country after graduation. Salaries in China were rising rapidly, and job opportunities were abundant.
Until September 2018, Mr. Gao was a Chinese success story. He grew up in a village in the eastern province of Shandong and moved to Beijing in 2003 to work on an assembly line at an electronics factory. He made about $100 a month. With street smarts, Mr. Gao made money helping factories and construction sites hire workers.
In 2007, he leased a plot of land on the outskirts of Beijing and constructed a building divided into 100 or so tiny rooms. He made about $30,000 a year renting them to migrant workers. He married, had two children and moved his parents to Beijing, too.
In 2018, the local government wanted the land back for development. Mr. Gao refused. The authorities cut water and electricity and pumped toilet sewage into the yard, forcing the tenants to leave. He won a lawsuit he brought against the government but received no compensation. When he petitioned to the higher authorities, he and his family were harassed, threatened and beaten. He and his wife divorced, in the hope that the authorities would leave her alone.
For the next few years, Mr. Gao did odd jobs, spending most of his time on his petition and studying law. Life became very tough during the pandemic. Mr. Gao and his ex-wife, still living together, had twin sons in January. He had four children and no job, no future. He was at his wits’ end.
In February, Mr. Gao came across social media posts about Chinese reaching the United States through the Darién Gap. He and his daughter applied for passports, and within weeks they flew to Istanbul and then to Quito, the capital of Ecuador, where most Chinese were starting their journey to the United States.
Another migrant I spoke with who crossed the Darién Gap, Mr. Zhong, who wanted to use only his family name for fear of retribution, has a background similar to Mr. Gao’s.
Born in a Christian family, he made his way from a village in Sichuan Province, in southwestern China, to a middle-class city life. He was trained as a cook at age 16 and worked at restaurants all over China. During the pandemic, he struggled financially. To pay his mortgage and car loan, about $800 a month, he worked on an assembly line in 2020.
The trouble for Mr. Zhong, now in his early 30s, started last December when police officers stopped his car for a routine alcohol test and saw a copy of a Bible on the passenger seat. They told Mr. Zhong that he believed in an evil religion and tossed the Bible on the ground and stomped on it. The officers then took his phone and installed an app on it that turned out to have software that would track his movements.
On Christmas Day, four police officers broke into a home where Mr. Zhong and three fellow Christians were holding a prayer service. They were taken to the police station, beaten and interrogated.
Like Mr. Gao, Mr. Zhong came across social media posts about the Darién Gap. He borrowed about $10,000 and left home on Feb. 22.
He said he had cried three times. The first was at the end of his first day on the Darién Gap: He lay in his tent full of regret, thinking the trip was too hard. The second time he cried was during a three-day motorbike ride with a fellow Chinese migrant through Mexico in the pouring rain. He cried again when he was detained at an immigration center in Texas. He applied for asylum and didn’t know how long he would be there. It could be three years or five years, he thought. He was released after seven days and flew to New York.
When he arrived in Flushing, a neighborhood in Queens and a hub for Chinese immigrants, he was disappointed: The neighborhood was shabby and expensive. “I thought walking the line was tough,” he said in early April. “Starting a life here is even more difficult.”
Mr. Zhong soon moved to a town of 30,000 people in Alabama. He had grown up near Chengdu, a city of 20 million. Now he felt truly alone. He works at a Chinese restaurant 11 hours a day, he said, and is unwilling to take a day off. He has learned to cook General Tso’s chicken and other Chinese American dishes. The pay is much better than in China, and he can send more money home. Every Sunday, he joins an online religious service, hosted by a church in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park, another community with a large population of Chinese immigrants.
He told me a joke over the phone: “Why did you go to the United States?” someone asks a Chinese immigrant. “Aren’t you satisfied with your pay, your benefits and your life?” The immigrant responds: “Yes, I’m satisfied. But in the U.S., I will be allowed to say that I’m not satisfied.”
“I can live like a real human being in the U.S.,” he said.
Mr. Gao and his daughter are settling down in San Francisco. Life for them is also not easy. We first met in April at a community service center that had helped them find a shelter, the gymnasium of a high school in the city’s Mission District.
They could stay there from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., sleeping on gymnasium mats and carrying all their belongings during the day. Mr. Gao’s daughter started school within two weeks after arriving in the city. He hoped that she would be able to visit her mother in China one day.
They moved to a studio apartment in a housing shelter. Then Mr. Gao got his work permit, bought a car and started delivering packages for an e-commerce company. He makes $2 per package. The more he delivers, the more he makes.
He said repeatedly how grateful he was for the kindness he had encountered since leaving China. He and his daughter were robbed, extorted and shot at. But strangers gave them bottled water and food. After traveling on an open train car for three days, he and his daughter met a Mexican couple who insisted they take a shower at their home.
On one Wednesday in November, Mr. Gao said, he woke at 4 a.m., delivered more than 100 packages and didn’t get home until after 9 p.m.
He took the next day off. When the motorcade of Mr. Xi, who was in San Francisco for a meeting with President Biden, drove by, Mr. Gao joined other protesters on the sidewalk, chanting in Chinese, “Xi Jinping, step down!”
Julie Turkewitz contributed reporting from the Darién Gap, and Eileen Sullivan from Washington.