Conflicting reports recently about the possibility of Chinese citizens being trapped in the war-torn Burmese state of Kachin are a reminder of China’s shady dealings on the other side of its border with Myanmar.
The state-run Chinese newspaper Global Times reported that hundreds of Chinese citizens were trapped by fighting between the Kachin Independence Army and the Burmese military around the jade-rich city of Hpakant. The area is the world’s largest source of jadeite, or what is known in China as fei cui, the most valuable form of jade.
A day later, the Chinese Embassy in Myanmar denied the report, claiming that no Chinese were in the area. But hours later, U Mong Gwong, an officer of the Kachin Independence Army, told The New York Times that about 300 Chinese civilians had indeed been caught in the crossfire of civil war.
Presumably, the Chinese government would rather not draw attention to the fact that its citizens are conducting business in what Myanmar calls a black zone, that is, territory controlled by guerrilla fighters in one of the country’s ethnic conflicts. Foreigners are barred from black zones throughout Myanmar.
But those roadblocks do not seem to matter if you are Chinese. Video footage from the jade mines, obtained by The Times in an earlier investigation of the industry, shows the Chinese freely entering and working in the off-limits area, where they buy and trade jade.
According to the Kachin rebels, however, the Chinese are doing more than that.
U Dau Hka, a spokesman for the Kachin Independence Organization — the civilian counterpart of the Kachin Independence Army — said that almost all the jade mines in the Hpakant area were owned by citizens of Myanmar, at least in name. “But those who are handling the steering wheels behind the scenes are foreign companies and foreign businessmen,” he said, referring to Chinese businessmen who they claim are financing the jade mines in the black zone.
South of Kachin, different wars are waged. In Shan State, 25 percent of the world’s heroin is produced from endless valleys of opium poppy. Just like the Kachin jade mines, the poppy area is in a black zone — no foreigners allowed.
This winter, I found myself waist-deep in those poppy fields, where opium was being farmed with impunity. As I waded through the fields filming opium farmers, my jeans became sticky with the mind-altering sap that oozes from the poppy flowers. They were the only pants I had with me. I imagined trying to explain to a Chinese airport security officer on my way home to Beijing why the dogs had sniffed me out. Fortunately, they did not.
About 90 percent of the heroin produced in those fields will eventually make its way to China, where it will be consumed.
Though foreigners by law are not allowed into the area, poppy farmers tell me that Chinese chemists making heroin have worked freely there. The practice is decades old, and government-designated boundaries do little to slow the trade. Poppy farmers feed their families from it, and rebel armies use the money to finance their fight for independence.
Regardless of the rival claims in this week’s reports about Chinese citizens trapped in Kachin, the Chinese presence in Myanmar’s black zones is nothing short of abundant. Myanmar’s civil wars have created havens for Chinese involved in smuggling timber, jade, gold and drugs.
This month, 155 Chinese citizens were detained in Kachin State on suspicion of illegal logging. “From a humanitarian point of view, China urges Myanmar to protect these people’s legitimate rights and interests,” a spokeswoman for China’s Foreign Ministry, Hua Chunying, said of the detainees at a news conference on Wednesday in Beijing.
Such arrests are the exception rather than the norm in Myanmar, however.
“There are some businessmen engaged in illegal activities who, attracted by outsize profits, cross the border to mine or smuggle jade,” China’s ambassador to Myanmar, Yang Houlan, said when asked about China’s involvement in Hpakant. “But there are some parts of this illicit trade that, like drugs, can’t be stamped out.”