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Father’s incredible journey through three continents to escape China’s zero-COVID policy

On a sunny afternoon in June, Wang Qun pushed his nose up against the six-metre 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 2000-mile US-Mexico border illegally each day, Wang was not fleeing poverty or violence south of the wall.
Instead, the 33-year-old Chinese citizen was running from China’s unrelenting zero-COVID policy and growing authoritarianism under leader Xi Jinping.
From the other side of the Pacific Ocean, Wang left his family behind to travel thousands of kilometres by plane, bus, boat and motorcycle. He trekked through deep jungles and across barren mountains, and spent days in multiple detention centres, 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 polarisation 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.
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.
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-19, 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.
It took Wang two flight stopovers to reach Quito, from where he rode buses for more than 1000 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.

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