Chinese citizens escape restrictions to find freedom in Thailand

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CHIANG MAI, Thailand – The hipsters are stressed out by city life, the tech bros are pumped about the Internet of tomorrow, and idealistic parents are eyeing China’s hyper-intensive schools, and the then there are the stoners. This backpacker town in the mountains of northern Thailand has become a destination for a selection of Chinese seeking relief from the increasingly repressive Communist Party at home.

Large billboards advertise international schools and establishments in Chinese characters. Chinese menu is available at almost every cafe, restaurant and herbal store in the old town. There are Mandarin-speaking doctors, delivery drivers and police officers. The stalls at the night markets accept Chinese digital payment apps.

That’s because many of these Chinese immigrants are not just passing through. They have come to stay.

“Back home in China, many feel exploited and confined as if they were cash crops on a large plantation,” said Gloria Yafan Niu, a researcher at Chiang Mai University who studies migration and gender and has been living here since 2018. “But here in Chiang Mai, you just make yourself and be a tree or a reed or flower, and find a balanced life with relatively low cost and high quality. “

As freedom – of expression, thought, association – has been steadily eroded in China since Xi Jinping took control of the country just over a decade ago, free-thinking Chinese have watched for intellectual asylums. For a while, that place was Dali, the city in southwest China known as “Dalifornia” because of its beautiful landscape, its growing tech scene and its tradition of friendly tolerance. .

But these days, even Dali is becoming inhospitable to digital spies and burning cities, the suspected techno-anarchic influences attracting unwanted scrutiny. That means that many people continue further south, to Chiang Mai.

Here, they discover new ideas, embrace different countercultures and build communities that are considered undesirable in China under Xi, a strong leader who has maintained control on the Chinese Communist Party throughout society.

The Chinese Communist Party gives Xi unlimited rule for flexible power

“When I turned on the television, opened newspapers or looked at social media in China, I heard only one person talking,” said Pu Jianchuan, a 50-year-old stockbroker and -investment bitcoin, referring to Xi. “It was cold.”

Xi was “closing the door” to the world, said Pu, who moved here early last year and now lives in a small village on the outskirts of Chiang Mai. He highlighted the strict “zero covid” lockdown in Shanghai and a draconian crackdown on tech, education and cryptocurrency giants.

Thailand’s warm climate, easy charm and relaxed visa system have long attracted Chinese tourists. But starting in 2022, as China’s covid lockdowns dragged into their third year, the tropical country became a new delight for those looking to escape from difficult conditions at home.

That year, 110,000 Chinese nationals applied for Thailand’s long-term visa – twice as many as the previous year, according to an analysis of Thai immigration data.

That has gone further since Thailand allowed visa-free entry for Chinese citizens in September.

Some are from the wealthy elite who decided to move away from China’s coronavirus restrictions. But many of them are young, middle class and educated. There are digital names, artists and chefs that came quickly.

They cite all sorts of reasons for making the move, but usually there is concern about the situation at home along with the lure of a free, easy and relatively cheap life. Many do not know when or if they will leave.

On the last evening of 2023, an alley just outside Chiang Mai’s old town, with its red-brick walls and moat, was buzzing with young Chinese singing and dancing in the new year.

A Chinese DJ played techno to a crowd sipping craft beers made in China. The smell of cannabis wafted into the air as tech workers from Shanghai and Shenzhen tried out TikTok dances.

A New Year’s Eve party was organized to mark the end of Wamotopia, an event – half tech conference, half carnival – which, like many of its attendees, had moved from Dali to Chiang Mai . More than 500 people – engineers, entrepreneurs and designers; blockchain developers, digital marketers and spiritual gurus – for two weeks of intense discussions in Chinese and cheerful parties.

They came to hang out, sure, but also for the panels on how to imagine and then create a better future – something the techie-dominated crowd often decided was best to achieved using next generation decentralized technology.

Wamotopia is “not political,” said Lin, an organizer in his mid-20s who spoke on the condition that only his surname be used to avoid retaliation from Chinese authorities. “We are not against anyone.”

Xi Jinping’s crackdown on everything is reshaping Chinese society

But China’s tough political environment took the edge off discussions, and Xi and his policies were rarely far from people’s minds. One invitation-only session was scheduled as a group therapy for people frustrated by China’s lockdowns and persecution of activists.

Lin, when joking about the challenge of shepherding a decentralized organization without a leader, took Xi’s quote. “I’m ready to ‘put my own goodness aside for the good of my people,'” he said with a smile.

Events such as Wamotoopia, and the recent opening of a bookstore in Chinese, suggest that this migration is not a big deal but that it may have the power to survive.

The bookstore – known as “Nowhere” in English and “Feidi, or “enclave,” in Chinese—was founded by Zhang Jieping, a Chinese journalist known for her role in creating outlets for independent Chinese writing such as the online magazine Initium.

The store is meant to be an inclusive space that can “hold a great variety of books and political ideas” so that “there’s something for everyone,” Zhang said. It has quickly become a medium for engaging in deep intellectual discussions and creating connections with local people or the Chinese community in general.

While Wamotoopia attendees like Pu said the event was a great way to meet other Chinese in Chiang Mai, the community’s rising profile comes with risks.

The Chinese state is watching

Even 1,000 miles from the Chinese border, unknown Chinese speakers would appear and take pictures or question attendees, raising fears that the events were being monitored.

The attention from the Chinese authorities is particularly worrying for those who chose Thailand simply to try a different kind of life from the mainstream approved by the Communist Party, rather than out of any sense of dissent. political.

In China, since politics is basically banned from public life, people focus on: “How do I define myself and what kind of life do I want to live?” said Niu, a Chiang Mai University researcher.

Niu moved here in 2018 for doctoral studies and stayed so she could send her daughter Cynthia, now 7, to an international school and keep her out of China’s strict education system.

After the pandemic, more families came to seek a better quality of life and affordable international education, Niu said.

See what caused activists to break with China’s ‘zero covid’ policy

Many were just as wary of China’s education system, which says that children succeed with “hard cuts” and fierce competition. “What if my child is grass, not a tree?” she asked.

Some have less than perfect reasons. One design student in his late 20s came to study in Thailand after being expelled from a Chinese university for smoking weed. (China has some of the toughest drug laws in the world, including possible death penalties for dealers.)

Marijuana is legal in Thailand, which means that he can now smoke as much as he wants. “I don’t have to worry about people taking that joy away from me,” said Guagua, who spoke on condition that his nickname be used to avoid attention from Chinese authorities.

Others came because they didn’t fit in at home in other ways.

In 2019, Eddy Lee left Hong Kong – where Beijing has increasingly asserted itself across all aspects of life – as massive protests swept the region. The fierce fighting and constant tear gas gave her what she called “self-confidence” to flee somewhere peaceful.

So the 38-year-old chef opened a restaurant here selling traditional Cantonese dumplings and other dim sum. “Chiang Mai is definitely a good place to enjoy the later years,” she said, noting how Thailand is much more tolerant of members of the gay community like herself and her partner.

Some see the entry as a mixed blessing, fearing that Beijing will use its influence to establish a stronger presence in Thailand. But Lee believes the Chiang Mai community will survive additional scrutiny and “whatever the Chinese government wants to do.”

“We will still find ways to survive,” she said.

Shepherd reported from Taipei, Taiwan.

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