Chinese nationals are trying to get from Indonesia to Australia by boat. This is why they're risking their lives

A sunset over calm ocean water

As night fell over the Indian Ocean, Li thought he would die in his boat.

It had been four days since he and nine other men from China boarded the small wooden vessel in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta and headed to Australia.

Li was told by the so-called "agent" who sold him the place on the boat that the trip would only take four days.

But as the sun set on the fourth day, strong winds and huge waves saw the group still floating on the ocean, with Li feeling nauseous and hopeless. 

And the worst was yet to come.

Two engines broke down. Perilous waves hit the boat again and again. The only pump in the ship stopped working. Water leaked from beneath the floors.

Li took out his phone and started to draft his last words.

In the message, he apologised to his wife and child for being too busy with work in the past few years, and for not taking good care of them.

"I was hoping that if I didn't make it through, then maybe someone could find my phone one day and know who I am," he told the ABC.

Somehow, after eight stormy nights, the boat came ashore on the northern tip of Western Australia. They had made it, but in many ways, their journey was only just beginning.

Exhausted and thirsty, the group of men decided to look for water. They broke up into smaller groups, and one of those groups accidentally walked into the unfenced Truscott air base. 

What happened next hit national headlines, reviving a fierce debate about  border security and boat arrivals that has vexed successive federal governments for decades.

Chinese nationals trying to reach Australia by boat has been a phenomenon rarely seen until this year.

The ABC can confirm at least three groups of Chinese nationals have travelled or planned to travel to Australia by boat via Indonesia this year. 

Only Li's boat made it to Australian shores. 

The latest group was found on May 8.  Their fishing boat, carrying six Chinese men on board — including an alleged smuggler — was intercepted by Indonesian authorities as they tried to make their way to Australia .

Indonesia's Immigration Agency has confirmed one people smuggler from Bangladesh has been arrested, and two Indonesian field operators have been sentenced to seven years in jail for people smuggling.

Indonesian authorities also revealed that the people smugglers used TikTok to lure in the Chinese nationals and get them to set sail for Australia.

A group of Chinese men sitting on the boat.

Li and the other men on board the boat that reached Western Australia have been detained at an offshore processing facility in Nauru for more than a month. 

But their story is not just about border security and people smuggling.

It speaks to an emerging trend of Chinese nationals risking death for what they say is a chance at a better life abroad. 

Why these men spent $10,000 each to reach Australia

The ABC has been in contact with three men — including Li — who have been detained at the Nauru Detention Centre since wandering into the WA air base. 

The ABC has used pseudonyms to protect their identities.

For Li, who is in his early 30s, travelling to Australia by boat was a last resort after being continuously frustrated by what had happened in China since the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020. 

He ran a small business in a northern city in China but, due to Beijing's tough COVID zero policy that saw entire neighbourhoods forcibly locked down for weeks at a time, his business suffered significantly.

A close up of Xi Jinping wearing a suit looking over his shoulder in front of a flag.

Even after the lockdowns were lifted, the Chinese economy continued to suffer. Li's business went bankrupt and he was left with huge debts.

He said he also felt discouraged by China's political atmosphere after President Xi Jinping began his third term of leadership and tightened his control over society.

"I found my life in China too stressful, with limited freedom," he said.

"I want to come to Australia as it's more humane and free."

Zhang, another Chinese man in his late 30s who is also detained in Nauru, said his reasons for leaving were similar. 

"I also ran a business before but due to the broader environment I now owed lots of debts," Zhang said. 

Zhang also said he suffered political oppression for refusing to bribe officials.

Li and Zhang never met before boarding the boat in Jakarta. However, they both say they had been browsing on social media platforms Xiaohongshu and Douyin — the Chinese version of TikTok — looking for ways to leave their country. 

They spotted advertisements about smuggling operations to Australia via boat in comment sections.

They were then added to a chat group.

"We then found out lots of people want to come to Australia but their visa applications were rejected," Li said.

"We still wanted to come to Australia and gradually we decided to take a risk."

They paid an agent about $10,000 per person for the journey.

Under the agent's instructions, they took a plane to Jakarta, then waited until sundown to get into the boat.

The smugglers never told the 10 Chinese men they could be taken to Nauru, where Australia's offshore immigration detention centre is based. 

"We were not aware of this at all," Li said.

"What we only knew is that there'd be two possibilities awaiting us if we travelled by boat: We either got intercepted before coming ashore or we landed successfully and then applied for visas based on our individual situations, such as applying for asylum."

Fang, another Chinese man from the boat, also said he was not aware of Australia's immigration policy and the existence of offshore detention centres.

The 30-year-old Chinese national told the ABC that he was working in a steel factory in Malaysia.

He also came across information about boat travel on Chinese social media. When he boarded the vessel, he was still yet to resign from the factory.

"I have travelled to Australia in the past and I quite like the country," Fang said.

"I want to come here to make some money. Life has been difficult."

In a statement to the ABC, a spokesperson for Chinese social media platform Xiaohongshu said it prohibited using the platform for illegal activity.

"Upon discovering such violations, the company will remove the content and take action against the account," the spokesperson said. 

The ABC has also reached out to ByteDance — the parent company of Douyin — for comment but is yet to receive a response. 

The treacherous 'walking route' to the US 

The ABC is unable to independently verify Li, Zhang and Fang's claims.

And the men could not provide any documents to the ABC because their possessions, including their phones, were taken from them at the Truscott air base.

However, their stories — including how they used Douyin and Xiaohongshu to find ways to enter Australia without visas — heavily overlap those emerging from the US border in the past two years. 

A group of Chinese nationals leaving a boat in the Rio Grande river

Since late 2021, there has been a dramatic rise in undocumented Chinese nationals entering the US through Mexico — a route often used by people from Central America.

According to data from US border authorities, more than 37,000 Chinese nationals were arrested on the US-Mexico border in 2023  — 10 times more than the previous year.

Many of these Chinese nationals used Douyin — where Li, Zhang and Fang found information about the boat travel — to record how they travelled from China to the US without a visa.

They often go to Hong Kong or Macau, take a plane to Turkey, and then fly to Ecuador, where Chinese passport holders can enter the country without visas.

From there, they walk through the Darien Gap — one of the most dangerous jungles in the world — all the way north to Mexico.

They call this journey "the Walking Route" and it takes about a month to complete. 

Tracy Wen Liu, an award-winning journalist now working for Voice Of America — a US government-funded broadcaster — has been documenting the phenomenon since 2022.

She said the people she spoke to who followed the Walking Route were often from a lower- to middle-class background, with about $30,000 to support themselves as they left China. 

"A lot of them actually have had some sort of college education or even had a job in China," Ms Liu said.

She said they tended to be young — between 20 and 40 years old — and they were familiar with using social media to look for information or document their journey.

And Chinese nationals' growing demand for the route had inspired a new business model in Mexico, Ms Liu said.

Migrants from China ride in a motorised boat

New Chinese restaurants, hostels and car rental services are being set up by locals to serve these new customers.

"There are an increasing number of agents trying to offer packages to people who are taking this route," Ms Liu said.

"Those agents can arrange transportation for these people or they can even help bribe local police or help bribe local gangsters to make this trip much less risky."

Still, the route is full of danger.

In late March, a group of eight Chinese nationals were found dead on a beach in Mexico.

This is the first known case of Chinese migrant deaths since the Walking Route became popular in 2021.

Why are Chinese nationals leaving their country?

It's rare to see people from China — a middle-income country — opting for illegal migration pathways to leave, according to Victor Shih, an associate professor in Chinese political science at the University of California, San Diego. 

Chinese migrants to US in bush

"Usually this kind of sizeable economic migration would stop when a country reaches middle-income status, which China reached a few years ago," Dr Shih said.

"Of course, even in middle-income countries, people try to leave sometimes for better economic opportunities, but mainly relying on legal channels, like studying overseas and then getting a work visa."

Dr Shih said the growing use of the Walking Route spoke to the economic downturn in China in the past few years, as well as the increasingly challenging business environment.

"During COVID, a lot of small businesses had their savings wiped out because the lockdown policy just led to no cash flows," Dr Shih said when asked why business owners such as Li and Zhang would take such risks to leave China.

"Many of them, also, in order to survive their businesses, borrowed a lot of money, either through formal banking channels or informal lending channels.

"But because of the weakness of the recovery, many of these businesspeople were not able to make enough money to repay their debt."

And that is when their economic struggles turn political.

On the street of Beijing, a cyclist rides past a banner that promotes Chinese president Xi Jinping's speech. 

"In China, because of how pervasive the credit system is … if you get a low score on the credit system, some of these people are not able to even ride a train," Dr Shih said.

"So that makes doing business — to start a new business in order to repay some of their debts — nearly impossible."

After COVID-19 restrictions were lifted in 2022, Beijing announced measures such as tax cuts to boost the economy. However, Dr Shih said "that doesn't really help" with the cash flow situation.

"The other problem is that many local governments are basically bankrupt, so some local governments have instituted informal taxes on small businesses," he said. 

Many Chinese people — from the elite to the middle class — have lost their optimism, according to Dali Yang, a China political economist at the University of Chicago. 

Travellers walk with luggages at a terminal hall

"We do see this year, for example, finally, the uptake in domestic tourism [in China]," he said.

"But at the same time, for people who have lost a lot of money in recent years, it's not like they can easily get back the money, and very often they may have exhausted their savings."

Data from China's Central Bank released last week also shows China's manufacturing and services sector has slowed at a time of weak domestic demand and possible deflation.

"The latest figure [from the Central Bank] also just simply reveals that people don't find a lot of opportunities for making investments in China at this moment," Professor Yang said.

The new reality after leaving China

In the US, journalist Tracy Wen Liu has stayed in touch with Chinese nationals who have risked their lives on the Walking Route to enter the US. 

She has found those who can speak some English and drive can adapt to American culture more easily.

"I think a lot of them are struggling as well," she said. 

She has also noticed many Walking Route migrants have chosen to settle in big cities such as New York and Los Angeles, and many of them are competing for the same jobs. 

People celebrate Lunar New Year in New York's Chinatown. 

"It's more and more difficult for them to find a job right now, and also hostels or hotels in those areas are getting more and more expensive because there's an increase in demand," she said.

She has also found some of the Walking Route migrants have returned to China.

"A lot of Chinese migrants, when they were living in China … they had a perception about life in the US, [like] it's very easy to make money in the States, it's very nice to live there, it's very convenient and prosperous," she said. 

"However, when they actually came to the US, when they live in those hostels and share a room with 10 other people, when they work 14 hours a day, seven days a week and make a salary that's much lower than the minimum salary by law because they don't have a status … I think a lot of them realise that it's actually really difficult to find a living in the States."

Both China and the US have tried to crack down on the flow of migrants. 

In April, Douyin — where many Chinese migrants search for information about the Walking Route — censored relevant videos on the platform.

The two countries have also reportedly resumed cooperation on repatriation to tackle Chinese migrants rushing to the southern border of the United States. 

Chinese migrants met border control in US

Meanwhile, in Nauru, the 10 Chinese men who sought a better life in Australia face an uncertain fate. 

Fang chose to return to Malaysia and continue his work there. However, Li and Zhang want to try to stay in Australia.

"After going through what happened at home, I don't want to go back to China," Liu said.

"I came to Australia because it's a free country. It has human rights. It gives people freedom, both physically and mentally."

The nine Chinese men say Australian immigration officials offered them $US5,100 (about $7,600) per person and a return ticket if they agreed to go back to China.

During their stays in Nauru, they took English lessons, went through various health checks, and had time for exercise.

As the men barely spoke any English, they communicated with officers from the centre through mobile translation apps, and when they had meetings with police and the immigration department, there was an interpreting hotline set up for them.

But what they had been hoping for was access to legal aid.

Li said the centre told them they would have a legal aid session in late April, but they told the ABC they were unable to meet with a lawyer until May 17. 

They are becoming more anxious as the days pass. 

Two sources inside the Nauru Detention Centre told the ABC that one of the Chinese men has been on a hunger strike since Wednesday, demanding to be sent to Australia.

The sources say he is in a good condition. 

Li occasionally calls his wife using the phone provided by the centre.

"My family is quite worried but they are also supportive," he said.

He also has a young child but in the past few weeks has tried not to speak to them directly.

"I worry that I will get emotional," he explained. 

In a statement to the ABC, the Department of Home Affairs said people who attempted to travel to Australia by boat without a valid Australian visa had "zero chance of settling in Australia".

"Australia's policy response remains consistent — unauthorised maritime arrivals will not settle in Australia," a spokesman for the department said.

"The government of Nauru is responsible for the implementation of regional processing arrangements in Nauru, including the management of individuals under those arrangements." 

The ABC has contacted the Chinese embassy in Australia for comment but is yet to receive a response. 

Additional reporting by Bill Birtles and Erin Parke

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UTM or Universal Transverse Mercator coordinate system divides the Earth’s surface into 60 longitudinal zones. The coordinates of a location within each zone are defined as a planar coordinate pair related to the intersection of the equator and the zone’s central meridian, and measured in meters.

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Elektrostal , Moscow Oblast, Russia


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  16. Chinese nationals are trying to get from Indonesia to Australia by boat

    For Li, who is in his early 30s, travelling to Australia by boat was a last resort after being continuously frustrated by what had happened in China since the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020.

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    In 1938, it was granted town status. [citation needed]Administrative and municipal status. Within the framework of administrative divisions, it is incorporated as Elektrostal City Under Oblast Jurisdiction—an administrative unit with the status equal to that of the districts. As a municipal division, Elektrostal City Under Oblast Jurisdiction is incorporated as Elektrostal Urban Okrug.

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    Geographic coordinates of Elektrostal, Moscow Oblast, Russia in WGS 84 coordinate system which is a standard in cartography, geodesy, and navigation, including Global Positioning System (GPS). Latitude of Elektrostal, longitude of Elektrostal, elevation above sea level of Elektrostal.

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