Gao Zhibin embarked on a journey from Beijing with his daughter on February 24, seeking safety and a better life. Over 35 days, they traversed nine countries by various means—planes, trains, boats, buses, and even on foot. By the time they reached the United States in late March, Mr. Gao had shed 30 pounds due to the arduous trek.

Their most grueling ordeal was navigating the treacherous Darién Gap, a brutal Panamanian jungle. On the initial day, Mr. Gao suffered sunstroke, followed by swollen feet on the next. Dehydration forced him to discard essential gear like his tent, sleeping pad, and spare clothes. Things worsened when his 13-year-old daughter fell ill, vomiting and running a fever, likely from drinking contaminated water. As they struggled through the muddy rainforests, they paused every 10 minutes and reached their Panama campsite at 9 p.m., far from their intended destination.

Feeling compelled to leave China, Mr. Gao expressed his belief that safety lay only in the U.S., fearing famine or potential conflict under China’s leader, Xi Jinping. This sentiment is echoed by an increasing number of Chinese migrants entering the U.S. through the Darién Gap, fleeing economic stagnation and political constraints.

Educated and affluent Chinese resort to legal channels like education and work visas, mirroring the motivations of Darién Gap migrants. This influx is a testament to Xi’s leadership, now in his third term, claiming China’s ascendancy over the West. Those fleeing have middle-class backgrounds, fearing poverty amid a worsening economy and finding little hope for their future or their children’s in China.

Under Xi’s rule, anyone could fall victim to state scrutiny, irrespective of religion or occupation. More than 24,000 Chinese migrants were temporarily detained at the U.S. southern border in 2023, a stark rise from previous years, signifying a shift in migration trends.

Mr. Gao, once a Chinese success story, faced government resistance when his land was claimed for development in 2018. Despite winning a lawsuit, harassment and threats ensued, leaving him jobless with a fractured family. He and his daughter took the daring journey through the Darién Gap after learning about it on social media, driven by desperation and a lack of prospects in China.

Another migrant, Mr. Zhong, faced persecution for his Christian beliefs in Sichuan Province, leading him to flee through similar means. His struggles continued upon reaching the U.S., settling in Alabama after a tough start in New York. Working tirelessly at a Chinese restaurant, he grappled with loneliness, yearning for a sense of belonging in his new home.

The challenges persist for Mr. Gao and his daughter in San Francisco, though they’ve found shelter and work. Despite encountering hardship and adversity during their journey, they’re grateful for the kindness strangers showed them along the way. As Mr. Gao protests against Xi Jinping during his visit to San Francisco, he continues to seek a safer, more secure life for his family.

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