On a sunny afternoon in June, Wang Qun pushed his nose up against the 20-foot high steel fence, peering at the palm trees and detached houses across the border – the first glimpse of his American dream.
Unlike many of the thousands aiming to cross the nearly 2,000-mile US-Mexico border illegally each day, Wang was not fleeing poverty or violence south of the wall.
From the other side of the Pacific Ocean, Wang left his family behind to travel thousands of miles by plane, bus, boat and motorcycle. He trekked through deep jungles and across barren mountains, and spent days in multiple detention centers – all in pursuit of freedom and opportunities in the United States.
His perilous journey – documented on social media and followed by CNN for months – is a living example of “run philosophy,” a Chinese buzzword that advocates emigrating from China to escape what some see as a doomed future under Xi’s rule.
“In the years after Xi Jinping came to power, China’s policies have become tighter and tighter, the economy is not doing great … and (his) dictatorship is only getting worse,” Wang told CNN.
“He’s just another version of Mao Zedong,” Wang added, referring to the founder of Communist China who built a cult of personality around himself and ruled until his death in 1976.
“Xi is going to get another term soon – and might even stay in power indefinitely. I see no hope.”
As China’s most powerful leader in decades, Xi is widely expected to secure an unprecedented third term at a key political meeting this fall. He has vowed to achieve the “great rejuvenation” of the nation, envisioning a China that rivals – if not surpasses – the West in power and strength.
Under Xi, the ruling Communist Party has touted its political model as superior to Western democracies, citing Beijing’s ability to swiftly stamp out Covid outbreaks as further proof that China is rising and the US is in decline.
Meanwhile, Chinese state media has relentlessly highlighted racial inequality, gun violence and political polarization as evidence of an American descent.
But the surging popularity of run philosophy – and the journeys taken to the US by Wang and others – is an outright rejection of that narrative, which shows many Chinese have no faith in Xi’s promise to make China great again.
‘I want to get out’
Most disciples of run philosophy hail from middle- and upper-class Chinese families with the means to legally emigrate, either through education, work or investment.
But Wang, who ran a bubble tea shop in an economic backwater in eastern China, says he has neither the money nor the skills to look for a school or job in the US.
After graduating from a vocational high school in 2008, Wang worked in graphic design for a few years in eastern Zhejiang province. Frustrated by low wages and stagnant career growth, he switched to online retail, riding a boom in China’s internet sector.
As the industry grew, competition became fierce and profits thinned. Wang quit in 2020 and returned to his hometown to open a bubble tea shop with a friend.
By then, China had adopted its unrelenting zero-Covid policy, which relies on sweeping surveillance of its 1.4 billion citizens, mass testing, extensive quarantines and snap lockdowns – even when only a handful of cases are found.
Wang’s business was hit hard by the restrictions.
“I couldn’t make ends meet, and I have two children to raise,” said Wang, who is divorced. “I don’t want to be under lockdown. I want to get out.”
It wasn’t the first time Wang had considered leaving China. He said he first had the idea more than a decade ago, soon after he learned to circumvent China’s internet censorship system and read about the 1989 Tiananmen massacre online. “I had my political awakening around the age of 20. I knew the Communist Party was unreliable,” he said.
But his work, marriage and family life kept him busy, and Wang didn’t go out of his way to search for opportunities to emigrate. “Now that I’m divorced, I don’t have the burden anymore. I decided to go by myself and leave my two kids to my parents,” he said, adding that he hoped his children could join him later.
Wang set his eyes on one destination – America. He had never left China, nor did he speak any English, but he said he learned about the US from television shows and movies.
“My impression of the United States is that it’s a free, democratic, open, and vibrant country. You can accumulate wealth through your own hard work,” he said.
Treacherous journey over land and water
Leaving China in the zero-Covid era is not easy.
Since early 2020, China has kept its borders largely sealed to keep out the coronavirus – an attempt that appears increasingly futile in the face of the highly infectious Omicron variant.
The Chinese government has also banned citizens from going overseas for “non-essential” reasons. Travel is only permitted for resuming work, study, business, and scientific research, or seeking medical care.
Beijing says the ban is to reduce the spread of Covid, but many in China view it as a way to make emigration more difficult.
Through online chat groups, Wang discovered a network of people in China planning to illegally immigrate to America through the South American nation of Ecuador.
He applied for a language school in Ecuador’s capital, Quito, and used the school’s admission letter to apply for a passport. Officials initially rejected his application, but eventually gave Wang his passport after he submitted a trove of supporting documents.
Wang made it out of China in April, and kept his family in the dark. “I told them I was going to look for jobs in Zhejiang again. I didn’t want them to worry for me while I’m on the road,” he said.
It took Wang two flight stopovers to reach Quito, from where he rode buses for more than 1,000 miles to a coastal town in Colombia. He then took a boat to Panama with dozens of other migrants. He was excited by the ride, taking a selfie video with passengers sitting behind him, who laughed, cheered and gave the thumbs up.
But the journey ahead almost broke him from exhaustion. Wang spent three days hiking through Panama’s dense rainforest, trudging in mud, wading through rivers and climbing over cliffs. “It was so painful. I felt like a walking corpse, and at one point, after 12 hours of walking, I thought I was going to die,” he said.
Emerging from the jungle, Wang took a canoe heading for a refugee camp. On the way, water leaked into the vessel and it almost capsized, forcing Wang and other passengers to frantically scoop the water out.
At the camp, Wang found refugees from around the world. From there, he spent seven days on buses to Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala, then took another boat ride to Mexico’s border, where he was detained by police for illegal entry.
Five days later, Wang was released and told to leave Mexico within 20 days. He then paid a smuggler thousands of dollars to get to Mexico City. He was squeezed into the back of a truck with dozens of migrants, so crowded that he could hardly move or stretch his legs – then into a hot van with two dozen other people, with sealed windows and no air conditioning.
It was more than 104 degrees Fahrenheit inside the van, Wang said, and as sweat poured out of him, he struggled to breathe.
In Mexico City, he bought a motorcycle and rode 1,600 miles to the US border with a fellow Chinese migrant he met along the way, first up the coast and then across the desert.
Watching the sun setting on the shore one evening, Wang felt wracked with emotion. “My dear family on the other side of the ocean, I don’t know whether I still have a chance to go back in the rest of my life. Mom, Dad and kids, I miss you so, so much,” he posted on Twitter.
When CNN met Wang in Mexicali near the US border on June 4, he appeared relaxed and calm. While the journey was more treacherous than he had expected, Wang said it was all worth it.
“I want my kids to receive better education,” he said, adding that the patriotic education taught in Chinese schools was “brainwashing” his children.
“I don’t want to be suppressed. I want freedom,” he said.
One of many desperate migrants
Wang’s journey to America may be rare and extreme, but he is not the only one taking the treacherous path.
CNN spoke to other Chinese nationals who were trying to immigrate to the US illegally, including a man who escaped China in June by walking across the border into Vietnam. From there, he flew to Ecuador, and is taking the same route as Wang to the US-Mexico border. He said he almost died in the Panama rainforest and has now made it to Mexico City.
According to the UN Refugee Agency, the number of Chinese nationals seeking asylum has grown by nearly eight times over the decade since Xi came to power, reaching nearly 120,000 in 2021 – with about 75% of them seeking asylum in America.
On China’s internet, searches for “emigration” began skyrocketing in March, as many struggled to get basic necessities and food during lockdowns across the country.
Discussion forums with detailed tips on how to leave China have gone viral on social media, and immigration lawyers say inquiries from Chinese wanting to leave have surged during the pandemic.
“Inquiries are up many hundreds of times over what it previously was,” said Edward Lehman, a Shanghai-based immigration lawyer.
Ying Cao, an immigration lawyer in New York, said back in 1949 hundreds of millions of people left China in fear of the new government. “Now we feel that there is a similar fear,” he said.
In response to CNN’s request for comment, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs defended the country’s Covid policies and called China a “land full of vitality and hope.”
A new life in America
The day after he spoke to CNN in Mexicali, Wang drove his motorcycle to the hills, then started hiking on a path heading north, until he came across a metal wire half-trampled into the ground.
He didn’t pay much attention and stepped right over it. It was not until 10 minutes later that he realized the wire marked the border and smiled with relief – he had finally made it to America.
He walked for hours across the wilderness, on terrain so steep and arduous that his sneakers fell apart. He then turned himself in to border control and, after spending a few days in detention, was released pending a hearing of his immigration case.
On the evening of July 4, Wang wandered the streets alone, gazing at the fireworks overhead.
“After having the American dream for more than 10 years, all of a sudden I’m strolling down the streets of the United States. I feel so many emotions running through me,” he wrote on Twitter.
CNN met Wang in late July in Los Angeles. He has temporarily settled into a community of Chinese immigrants and also made a friend – who crossed into America the same way he did.
But Wang knows it could be years before he sees his family again.
He had intended to eventually tell his family about his escape, but his son found out early. The 12-year-old shares Wang’s Apple account and located his father’s IP address in the US.
“I told him Dad came to the United States to make a lot of money for you and fight for a bright future for you,” Wang said.
He says he plans to seek political asylum. If his application is rejected, Wang says he may ask his kids to take the same dangerous route to America as he did, when they are older.
“My heart aches when I think of them. I really want to get them to the US as soon as possible. Because the longer it takes, the more they will be influenced by the Chinese education, and it will be harder for them to change,” he said.
While Wang waits to be called for a hearing on his immigration case, he is getting a driver’s license, training to be a masseuse and studying English every day. He plans to eventually become a truck driver in the US.
“It’s all worth it. In America, I can see sunshine. I can see the sea. I can do whatever I want. I can work hard for any job I like,” he said.