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China Facts: Communications - with North Korean Refugees

How does China's strict policies on communication affect Crossing Borders' efforts working with North Korean refugees? The Communist Party in China wants to retain power and this means that they stifle voices of dissent. This is why China restricts Internet usage, monitors phone communication and restricts freedom of the press.

China employs a total of 250,000 to 300,000 people to monitor their websites. (Source: “How Censorship in China Allows Government Criticism but Silences Collective Expression,” 2013. King, Pan, Roberts.)

That’s about the population of Anchorage, Alaska.

China knows that messages of dissent can quickly spread through the Web so they do everything they can to squash them.

Dissedent Chinese artist Ai Weiwei reacts during a group interview at his studio in Beijing
Dissedent Chinese artist Ai Weiwei reacts during a group interview at his studio in Beijing

In 2011, one of the most outspoken critics of the Chinese government, artist and activist Ai Weiwei, was arrested and detained for 81 days on what was believed to be trumped-up tax evasion charges following his harsh critique of the government’s handling of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Since his release from jail, he has been barred from leaving Beijing.

Crossing Borders is always vigilant about using the Chinese network to communicate. We assume China can listen in on our phone conversations and can look into most of our communications made over the Internet. Over the past 12 years, we have developed ways to secure our Internet connection and speak in code, among other things, to keep our communications secure. These measures and many more keep our North Korean refugees and workers on the ground safe so that our work can continue.

Stay tuned for more facts about China.

China Facts: One Party - Effects on North Korean Refugees

What are the political conditions of the nation in which our North Korean refugees seek safety and shelter? China is an economic behemoth that is often difficult to understand. You might have seen reports that they're investing heavily in Africa, flexing their muscle in Hong Kong or quietly keeping North Korea afloat. But why? What is China's game plan? Why do they operate under the veil of such mystery?

Crossing Borders operates under the umbrella of the Chinese government so it is essential to understand China in order to understand the plight of the work that we do. Hopefully, our "China Facts" series will give you a better picture of how China affects North Korea and the North Korean refugees we serve.

Our first installment is about China's one party system.

China is a one-party system. The Communist Party in China rules the country. There are no conservative or liberal parties. China's government is centralized and ruled by those who are members of the Communist Party. Though it’s hard to generalize an institution so large, it is safe to say that one of the party’s main objectives is to hold onto power.

Chinese citizens have the right to vote for lower-level officials but these candidates often have to be endorsed by the party to make it to ballot. High-level officials are elected from within.

This system has given China a decided economic edge because the decision-making process is agile and the country is able to quickly respond to changes in the global economy. Where this system lags is in the area of human rights.

In their 2014 World Report, Human Rights Watch says about the country:

"Rapid socio-economic change in China has been accompanied by relaxation of some restrictions on basic rights, but the government remains an authoritarian one-party state. It places arbitrary curbs on expression, association, assembly, and religion; prohibits independent labor unions and human rights organizations; and maintains Party control over all judicial institutions."

What this means for the estimated 200,000 North Korean refugees in China is that they are granted no human rights because China sees cooperating with North Korea in their best interest. There is no legal recourse if a Chinese citizen murders a North Korean refugee.

This is why Crossing Borders has and will continue to operate underground. This is why we change the names of the people we help and the people who help them. This is why we blur the faces of the individuals we help.

Stay tuned for more facts about China.

North Korean Refugees: Suggestions for Kim Jong Un

As an organization at work in aiding North Korean refugees who escape out of the Hermit Kingdom, Crossing Borders is careful to keep up-to-date on the news coming out of the country. Some of the information coming out of North Korea this year has been heartening. A shorter hemline signals a country that is beginning to change with the times. A first lady is making the regime seem more people-friendly. All of these things are great. Recently North Korean media released text of a speech Kim Jong Un made to the Workers’ Party on July 26, which called for reforms to the country’s economic system. In the speech, Kim stated that the party would focus on “developing the economy and improving livelihoods, so that the Korean people lead happy and civilized lives.” Even better.

But if nation would really like to show its strength, it must welcome North Korean refugees back into the country without the risk of punishment.

In spending time with North Korean refugees along the border and in South Korea, it is obvious to many of our field workers and staff that they miss their families back home. Because North Korea maintains a stranglehold on all forms of communication, it is very difficult for families to communicate and virtually impossible for them to see each other.

This is the agonizing decision that all North Korean refugees who fled their country have made. One family in this position comes to mind.

Our staff met the "Lee" family in a restaurant in Northeast China a few years ago. They were upstanding members of the Workers’ Party and, according to them, they had never starved because of their class standing and they had never committed a crime. This was until they couldn’t find food around 2007. The patriarch of this family of four had to make the tough choice to go into the illegal money transfer business.

Within months he was caught and had a few hours to decide what to do. He fled with his wife and his teenage daughter to China. His son, who was in elementary school, was left with relatives. They feared he would slow the family’s escape. When the family met with our staff for dinner, they could hardly focus on the meal as they told their story. All they could talk about was their son who was trapped in North Korea.

As a response, Crossing Borders helped send money into North Korea to get their son out of the country.

What do Kim Jong Un and the Democratic People's Republic leaders fear most about allowing North Korean refugees back into their country? Information. With an inflow of people who have seen the prosperity of the outside world, North Korea is afraid that their people might grumble for change and the ruling elite might lose power.

But change is already afoot. DVDs from the outside world are secret, but commonplace. People get news regularly from foreign news outlets beaming short wave radio signals into the country. Illegal cell phones connected to the Chinese networks are available to some through the black market.

What is North Korea trying to shield its people from? The cat is out of the bag.

For people to live in happiness they must be given the opportunity to see their families. New economic reforms will undoubtedly open the country up even more. There is no risk in slowly allowing North Korean refugees back to help rebuild the country that they love. This will help North Koreans live, as Kim Jong Un states, "happy and civilized lives."