Burmese in China: The unseparated linkage across border

By Yihui Liu

“Though belonging to different countries at the certification level, we (Chinese and Burmese) are family.” Said G, a local Chinese in Ruili. 

Ruili is a border city in southwest China, bordering Myanmar on three sides. On the streets of Ruili, there are beautiful girls with yellow powder on the face, men in long skirts, and shop signs in Chinese and Burmese. Watching the golden roofs of Theravada Buddhist temples shining under the blue sky, newcomers can hardly tell whether they are in China or Myanmar.

Migrating to China for a better economic life

According to the Burmese chamber of commerce in Ruili, around 300,000 Burmese are currently living and working in Dehong (the prefecture to which Ruili city belongs), including 100,000 in Ruili. “Here in Ruili, most cleaners you see on the streets, and most jade dealers are Burmese.” Said L, a young lady originally from Myitkyina, Myanmar, now selling jewelry in Ruili. Besides, tens of thousands of Burmese flood into Dehong as farmers in the sugarcane harvest season.

The key driver for Burmese immigrating to work in China is the better pay and working conditions than their hometown. “When I came to China in 2003, wages in China could be three times as high as that in Myanmar”, Recalled M, a Burmese lady from Shan State. Apart from higher pay, the vast majority of China’s jobs provide accommodation and food, relieving the financial stress of Burmese workers.

The author (left) was talking with a Burmese (right) working in a car-washing shop in Dehong

Due to Dehong’s status of a border trade zone, the legal process for Burmese to work and live in Dehong is not complicated. Burmese can apply for a temporary residence permit by providing identification documents, entry certificates, working proof materials, etc. This permit is valid for three months to one year, and can be extended every three months. Though it does not allow Burmese to travel out of Dehong, it is sufficient for most Burmese’s demand to work in China.

For local people in Dehong, the contribution of Burmese to Dehong’s economy is highly recognized. “The arrival of Burmese is implementable to Dehong’s economy, especially to our industry,” said N, a local sugar mill factory director, whose factory has around 80% Burmese workers.

Culture of the same origin across the border

For most people working abroad, it’s a big challenge to adapt and integrate into different cultures. In comparison, many Burmese in Dehong don’t have this problem. They don’t find it hard to blend into the local society.

“I have a lot of Chinese friends in Ruili,” said L. Having been in Ruili for three years, the outgoing girl felt at home. She can speak Mandarin and local dialect fluently, and always hang out with Chinese and Burmese friends.

Furthermore, cross-border marriage between Burmese and Chinese is common, with approximately 3,000 pairs according to the Burmese chamber of commerce. “When Burmese girls come to work in our village, village boys often chat with them and ask them out,” said B, a local villager in Dehong.

These close intercourses reflect a welcoming attitude of most Burmese and Chinese towards each other, significantly contributed by a shared culture and tradition. 

In fact, from centuries ago, the border area has been home to many of what are now called “cross-border ethnics”: Jingpo in Chinese–Kachin in Myanmar, Dai in China — Shan in Myanmar, Han in China — Guogan in Myanmar, etc. , while the boundary line has not separated the interlinked culture. Many Burmese and Chinese still share the same language and cultural customs and even have relatives in another country. 

“We are deeply connected as members of the same ethnic group as a whole, regardless we are Burmese or Chinese,” said G, a local Jingpo in Dehong. L, originally from Kachin, agreed with G’s point. “As we share the same culture, there is no difference between us. In Jingpo/Kachin society, we tell relationship by surname. People with the same surname are of the same family.”

Cultural symbol of Jingpo, an ethnic group inhabited across border

It’s worth noting that Chinese people used to migrate to Myanmar for a better life in history. For instance, M’s grandparents were Chinese, who fled across the border to Shan State, Myanmar, during the Cultural Revolution. While even in Myanmar, all of their children and grandchildren go to Chinese schools, learning both Burmese and Chinese language. So when M came to Ruili for work and then married a Chinese man, it was not going abroad as going back home.

Therefore, many local Chinese welcome the arrival of Burmese, not only appreciating the latter’s contribution to Dehong’s economy but also considering them as brothers and sisters sharing the same origin. In fact, during the civil war in Myanmar in the last few years, many people in Dehong actively helped the Burmese who fled to the Chinese side, by freely providing food and accommodation. 

Obstacles of Burmese integration in Chinese society

Despite the culture of the same origin, there are still some obstacles in Burmese’s way of integrating into the local community fully.

First of all, the language barrier limits some Burmese’s work and life.

Though minority languages are common in Dehong, mandarin is the official language, spoken by just a small number of Burmese. Those Burmese unable to speak Mandarin can only socialize with Burmese and several Chinese of the same minority language, limiting their job options as well. Also, “Communication problems between Burmese employees and Chinese employers is common, causing many labor disputes,” said the director of the Burmese chamber of commerce.

Besides, some policies and procedures are troublesome for Burmese. 

Though the application requirement for temporary residence permits in Dehong is not complicated, some Burmese are even unable to provide Burmese identity card or entry certificate, which prevents them from obtaining legal status in Dehong.

Besides, lengthy procedures are fundamental difficulties for cross-border marriage. “If you want to marry a Chinese, you have to go to Yangon (former capital of Myanmar) several times to go through all the legal processes, and it’s costly.” Said M, the Burmese lady married a Chinese man more than a decade ago. These legal troubles discourage both sides from falling into cross-border love. “It’s inconvenient to date with Burmese girls because it’s too troublesome to get married,” said D, a local Chinese villager.

Moreover, Burmese children in Dehong face difficulties in attending school because most of them are not allowed to go to Chinese public schools. To solve this problem, the Burmese Chamber of Commerce opened six Chinese-Burmese bilingual schools in Ruili, covering hundreds of Burmese students. They got local government support, but the latter required them to establish a formal school with standard facilities instead of the current simple classrooms in private houses. 

A Sino-burmese bilingual School in Ruili

A Concerted Effort for Better Future

The difficulties Burmese face together in China have made them more united. The Burmese Chamber of Commerce in Ruili is a typical representative. It has members of diverse backgrounds who work together to offer help to all Burmese living in China regardless of their ethnicity and status. The chamber can help to solve all sorts of problems, such as legal issues and language barriers. 

Apart from the unity between Burmese, local Chinese also play essential roles in Burmese’s life to deal with all kinds of troubles. Many Chinese offer help to Burmese with legal processes, such as application of residence permit, etc. W, the Principle of the Chinese-Burmese bilingual school in Ruili, was once brought to the local police station. Finally, he escaped the predicament, under the help of his Chinese neighbors, who testified his identity in time. 

Just as P (president of the Burmese chamber of commerce in Ruili) said, “The relationship between Burmese and Chinese is excellent.” The homologous culture and the common pursuit of a better life of both sides lay solid foundations for the friendship between China and Myanmar. Under mutual efforts, better social integration can be foreseen in the near future.

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