Liyan Qi et al., Wall Street Journal, February 2, 2022
An extensive buildup of barriers along China’s 3,000-mile southern border is under way, according to public documents, official statements and interviews with residents, ostensibly to battle Covid-19 but with likely long-lasting ramifications on trade and travel.
The small Chinese city of Ruili, in the far south next to Myanmar, has seen a major construction project in the past two years. It is a border fence equipped with barbed wire, surveillance cameras and sensors.
Farther east, along China’s border with Vietnam, a 12-foot-high fence went up abruptly last year. It stops Vietnamese locals from heading to Chinese villages to harvest corn or sell medicinal herbs, and it looks like a prison, said Sung A Ho, a hotelier in Vietnam’s mountainous Lao Cai province.
The avowed purpose is to fight the spread of Covid-19 by limiting the entry of traders, workers and smugglers. The Southern Great Wall, people on social media are calling it. State media outlets have dubbed it the Anti-Covid Great Wall.
While some other countries try to transition toward living with Covid-19, China determinedly maintains a zero-Covid strategy, especially with the Beijing Winter Olympics starting this week. It does so not only through lockdowns and mass testing but also, increasingly, by walling off its neighbors.
The strategy means that along China’s long southern border, life is changing in ways likely to last long beyond the pandemic, with trade getting cumbersome and with control of people’s movements tightened.
The efforts are part of a wider drive by China to secure its borders, facilitate infrastructure projects and prevent refugees from crossing into China, said Karin Dean of Tallinn University in Estonia, who studies the border dynamics between China and Myanmar.
China’s calls to guard against a Covid-19 spread via the border are emphatic. In an August letter to villagers in border areas of Yunnan province, Chinese leader Xi Jinping urged locals to “safeguard the sacred land.” He told officials and civilians to unite to build an unbreachable barrier.
In Guangxi, a region bordering Vietnam, party officials urged cadres to “race against time, go all out, resolutely win the battle against the pandemic and defend the ‘south gate’ ” of China. The Communist Party chief of Yunnan province called for a mind-set of “facing death unflinchingly” to reassure the party leadership and Mr. Xi.
Yunnan, which borders Myanmar, Vietnam and Laos, earmarked a half-billion-dollar fund last year to fortify security barriers at the border. The province’s governor said in January that 100,000 officials, police officers, soldiers and civilians have been patrolling the border.
A Journal review of public records shows that in the past two years, China has built or strengthened at least 285 miles of fencing along its borders, most of it in the south. The actual figures are likely higher because not all local governments disclose this type of spending. At a wire-making center in Hebei province, some manufacturers bill their products as “border Covid-prevention wire.”
China put barriers on some parts of its borders long before Covid-19, not only near North Korea in the northeast and Xinjiang in the far west, but also in the south, where smuggling is a headache. But the extent to which the country has expanded fortifications all along the southern border during the pandemic has gone largely unnoticed outside the region.
In some spots, it includes the kind of surveillance common in China’s big cities. Xiaoguangnong, a tiny village of only 260 people close to Myanmar, has a facial-recognition system to distinguish locals from outsiders, according to state media.
Besides the southern border, several northern Chinese regions adjoining Mongolia and Russia have been fortifying border fences over the past two years, public records show. The efforts there often focus on strengthening existing fences rather than building new ones.
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in response to questions that fortifying borders is a widely accepted international practice, and that the fencing is helping to prevent cross-border transmission of Covid-19.