Reports have emerged that the Chinese government is constructive a 2,000-kilometer reinforced fence along its coiling border with Myanmar, following a spike in COVID-19 cases in the latter country.
According to a report in Radio Free Asia (RFA), the giant undertaking has been codenamed the “Southern Great Wall” and began construction earlier this year. According to the RFA report, stretches 659 kilometers of the barrier have so far been completed.
The reports have been accompanied by social media images from the town of Wanding and the city of Ruili – both of which sit on the border between Yunnan province and Myanmar’s Shan State – that appear to show reinforced steel fences topped with barbed-wire.
The Chinese government has long struggled to maintain control of Yunnan’s 2,200-kilometer border with Myanmar, which touches on regions controlled by ethnic armed groups and rebel armies that are effectively independent of the Myanmar state.
Since the 1980s, the Yunnan-Myanmar border region has been a conduit for increasing amounts of trade, much of it illicit. This includes everything from jade and luxury hardwoods to the stolen vehicles and the chemical precursors for methamphetamine, which is produced on an industrial scale in labs scattered throughout Shan State. The porous border also sees large undocumented flows of people, including day traders, migrant workers, and women smuggled into China for marriage to Chinese men.
Most Western media that have picked up the border fence story have focused on its potential to prevent the flight of Chinese dissidents. This is certainly a potential motivation. Given its loosely policed border, Yunnan has long served as an outlet for ethnic Uyghurs and others seeking to gain asylum in the West. (The region has at times also been a conduit for refugees from North Korea.)
But the real motivations for China’s construction of the fence are likely more complex.
First, there is the obvious imperative of preventing the spread of COVID-19 into China via illegal border crossings, which Chinese authorities have described as the main purpose of the fence. In September, the city of Ruili went into “wartime mode” after three illegal entrants tested positive for COVID-19. Thailand also recently saw small outbreaks from people who crossed over from Myanmar illegally.
The construction of a 2,000-kilometer razor-wire-topped fence might seem like overkill, but it testifies to the importance to Beijing of throttling the virus out of existence. In addition to keeping the Chinese population safe, mastery of COVID-19 is also central to China’s claim that it stands ready to lead Asia’s economic recovery from the pandemic. There is also invaluable propaganda to be wrung from the juxtaposition of China’s ruthless competence with the dithering of the United States and other Western countries.
Second, and as the Bangkok-based journalist Patrick Winn has pointed out, most illegal entrants into Myanmar are not dissidents, but Chinese nationals who are involved in the region’s endemic vice trade, either as providers or consumers of goods that are illegal in China. In 2014, I saw this for myself during a visits to Special Region No. 4, a small enclave just inside the Myanmar border run by an outfit that calls itself the National Democratic Alliance Army.
The NDAA’s miniature fiefdom, arranged around its neon-soaked capital Mong La, is sustained by a clutch of gaudy casinos and a satellite economy of brothels, hotels, restaurants, and endangered wildlife boutiques. The casinos that I visited were crowded almost exclusively with young Chinese men, many of them sporting shaved heads and tattoos. Special Region No. 4 is sustained by an informal pipeline of border crossings, that provides a handy way around the official border gate that connects Mong La with Yunnan.
Even if a dissident did choose to flee to escape China via the Yunnan border they would unlikely find much sanctuary in zones controlled by armed rebel groups like the NDAA. These groups, the largest and most well-armed of which is the United Wa State Army (UWSA), have long-standing ties to the Chinese government and are led by Mandarin-speaking leaders. In the case of the UWSA and NDAA, the two groups are offshoots of the Burmese Communist Party that was sustained for years by Chinese support before its collapse in 1989.
To be sure, Chinese officials have long been concerned that their nation’s porous borders with Myanmar have facilitated drug production and trafficking in all manner of contraband, as well as providing an outlet for illicit capital flows. In the past, Chinese police have taken actions to shut down border casinos in Laos and Myanmar that have been set up to attract Chinese gamblers. Chinese authorities also mount periodic crackdowns on the flow of crossborder contraband. This longstanding concern has likely only been reinforced by the threat of COVID-19 returning to China via the backdoor.
But as long as things don’t get too out of control, the status quo suits the Chinese government quite well. The continued flow of unofficial trade is vital to the economies of the mini-states inside Myanmar that are friendly to China and whose cooperation Beijing has a strong incentive to maintain, in order to ensure progress on crucial infrastructure projects that run through these regions, and to maintain leverage over the Myanmar government. The desire to choke off illicit trades across the borders is moderated by Beijing’s broader strategic interests.
COVID-19 has now given the Chinese government the pretext to address its longstanding border concerns – not to strangle off the flow of illicit trade, but to increase the Chinese government’s ability to decided where, when, and on which terms such trade will be able to take place. If the Myanmar border fence comes to fruition, it will offer another lever that Beijing can pull to reward or pressure both the Myanmar government and the string of rebel statelets to support its strategic interests in the border region.