We spent last night in Longzhou, a once-forgotten town near the Vietnam border that was once part of revolutionary base headed by Deng Xiaoping. These days, the picket lines continue, in the form of a puzzling number of border defense police checkpoints–which required our buses to stop and the passengers in the first three rows to hold up their ID cards. Signs everywhere urge citizens to take part in ‘upholding order,’ which, as explained, is their duty on behalf of a ‘strong border.’ Other signs post big-character PSAs on HIV prevention.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union (and even before then), China’s chief worry about its borders hasn’t been their military defensibility. Instead, the government’s focus has shifted to tackling “non-traditional” threats, such as the prospects for unrest or separatism arising from the convergence of poverty, illicit cross-border trade and movement, and divergent ethnic identities (I’ll footnote this later when I’m not typing on an iPod in an unheated guesthouse). (The HIV signs also indicate the importance of alleviating conditions that facilitate the movements of diseases across botders.) Ironically, one way China has sought to strengthen the security of its borders and frontier regions is by opening them up: building infrastructure and encouraging more cross-border trade. The idea is to make these places richer, better-connected, and overall more like the core areas of eastern China (the resulting influxes of Han workers and businesses can help that goal enormously over the long run).
So it is in Longzhou. While the main rail (and later highway) line to Hanoi skipped this place when it was built, allowing this former trading center to continue its long wither, the local government is making some efforts to reverse this town’s–and the surrounding area’s–fortunes. Billboards announce additional new trade development schemes, while rows of new apartment blocks are up across from the statue of Deng Xiaoping in the main square. If these schemes take off, the influence of Deng on Longzhou will have come full circle: from isolation within the red base he commanded, to new (renewed) trading port representing his policy of opening China to the world.
Anyway, we didn’t stay long. Today it was a quick ride down to Pingxiang, the town that did get lucky with that railroad, and site of the Friendship Pass–the border crossing that is open to third-country foreigners. Here we took a stroll down the busy shop-lined streets, sampled a little preview in the form of Vietnamese coffee, and took advantage of the very last China Post office before Vietnam to mail home most of our warm weather clothes (cost: $6). We were entering Southeast Asia, and there’d be no more snowy Miao villages on the balmy, palm tree-lined road ahead.
Then, post-nap (Owen) and mid-afternoon, we got a ride to the border. A late go at it to be sure, but crossing the border was supposed to be quick and painless — a short walk past some old French colonial buildings, a couple passport stamps, a few short lines. And it almost was, except my passport got a little wet and the Vietnam visa was just a tad smudged. (Okay, okay: the passport went through the wash, and while every other page was left a little wrinkled but otherwise unharmed, one corner of the Vietnam visa–the corner with the Shanghai consulate’s approval stamp–was completely obliterated. When this happened, it was too late to go back to Shanghai to pay for another one, so we decided to just try our luck and have a Plan B. Which was: go around. Vietnam, that is. Not the border checkpoint.)
Arriving at the Vietnam immigration side, we crossed our fingers as the border guards held up my passport (Owen, too, although Bayley had to help him with his fingers). And we swallowed hard when the one officer called all the other personnel nearby to come over to look at it. They crowded together, looking at the visa, then at me. One beckoned, and I approached. The senior man held up the suspicious visa, pointed at it, and managed to sound extremely annoyed with just one English word: “WHY.”
I realized it was a question. “It got wet,” I responded, in Chinese, trying to mimic the shrug and unconcerned tone that usually accompany these kinds of vague responses in the country I had just come from. Maybe those kinds of answers worked in Vietnam, too.
The group of passport stampers tightened their huddle again, examining the visa. My story did seem to match the forensic evidence. Another autopsy confirmed this. But if my incomplete visa wasn’t necessarily evidence of a nefarious scheme, it was certainly indicative of carelessness. Did Vietnam allow morons in?
The guard took out his stamp. Thwump.
We were–are–in. More to come.