More than two years after the great exodus that shook Asia, ethnic Chinese refugees still cross into this southern frontier town from Vietnam, bringng with them chilling stories of minority-group persecution, death and hunger.
Although the massive refugee surge of 1978-79 has subsided, dozens of new immigrants from Vietnam stream into the resettlement camp here every month complaining of even harsher conditions for ethnic Chinese than before the Chinese-Vietnamese war two years ago.
In the first visit by journalists to the Pingxiang camp 10 miles from Friendship Pass, recent refugees said in December that they left behind a harrowing life of arbitrary arrests, forced labor, confiscations of life savings and denials of food rations, medical care and education.
Even longstanding ethnic Chinese residents whose families go back generations in Vietnam are now suspected of being fifth-column loyalists of Peking and are treated little better than war criminals and spies since the 1979 war, according to refugee interviews.
"We are thorns in their eye, so they make life very difficult for us," said Wen Yisun, 45, a former watch repairman from the North Vietnamese town of Lang Son who fled here with his six children in April after a 14-month nightmare that typified life for many ethnic Chinese refugees.
Wen said his troubles began during the month-long border war when local police came to his home offering to guarantee safe passage out of Vietnam for his family in exchange for the sizable cache of gold he had saved -- worth $5,000.
Although he handed over the savings, Wen, his wife and children were taken instead by truck to a mountainous region 50 miles away, where they were forced to farm the barren land and subsist on cassava roots dug up by the youngsters.
When his wife grew gravely ill from the bitter life, Wen said, he carried her seven miles to the nearest hospital, only to be refulsed admission because he was Chinese. She died shortly afterward at the age of 38, her illness never diagnosed.
In desperation, Wen decided, "It was time to leave for the fatherland." Gathering together his children, he walked several hours down a narrow path toward the border, hiding in a wooded area to avoid a passing Vietnamese Army unit and finally crossing into southern China a day later.
Three years ago Peking would have seized upon Wen's calamitous story to dramatize the plight of several hundred thousand ethnic Chinese forced to flee Vietnam by boat and foot to escape official harassment and seizure of their property.
The harsh treatment of ethnic Chinese fanned the distrust Peking already had for Vietnam because of its cozy relations, with China's archrival, the Soviet Union, and contributed to China's decision to invade its southern neighbor in February 1979.
The violent border war, however, ended long before the problem of absorbing one of history's largest and most rapid population migrations. Well over 500,000 ethnic Chinese had fled Vietnam, flooding into China and Hong Kong and hovering around the borders of other Southeast Asian nations. h
Although China protested the loudest, it accepted more immigrants than any other country, jamming 263,000 into state farms scattered across four southern provinces. The price tag is said to have reached $600 million for feeding, housing, dressing and transporting the homeless families.
Since the war, the tidal wave has diminished to a steady trickle. In 1980, about 2,000 immigrants from Vietnam crossed into the three remaining refugee camps in Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, which runs along Vietnam's northeastern border.
At the Pingxiang camp, most of the recent refugees are peasants, small merchants and unskilled laborers from northern Vietnam, where just a few thousand ethnic Chinese remain out of a once thriving community of 500,000. Approximately 1 million ethnic Chinese still live in South Vietnam.
Like earlier arrivals, the newcomers said they had to pay bribes ranging from $150 to $500 per person to ensure a safe exit.The money, they said, was given to "guides" -- Vietnamese soldiers -- who escorted them through the maze of land mines and poisonous punji sticks laid along the border.
Sun Zicai, 38, a former interpreter and later driver from Lang Son who escaped to Pingxiang last November, said he paid $1,500 to free his wife and two children from a life of hunger and persecution.
In Vietnam, he said, he had been rounded up with more than 500 other educated ethnic Chinese and thrown into the Lang Son jail without charges. There, he said, he languished for 53 days with nothing more to eat than a fistful of corn flour before he was released.
"Before the war the living standard was rather good," said Sun, whose grandfather moved the family to Lang Son 72 years ago, joining a large Chinese community that enjoyed enough freedom to observe Chinese traditions and pass them on through Chinese-language primary and secondary schools.
As Sino-Vietnamese relations began deteriorating in the 1970s, he said, so did conditions for ethnic Chinese in Lang Son. First the schools were shut down and the textbooks destroyed. Since the war, Chinese have been denied food ration coupons, forcing them to salvage whatever scraps are available at the expensive free markets, he said.
Although recent refugees like Sun claim to have suffered even more than the wave of ethnic Chinese who escaped before the war, Peking has chosen to silence its propaganda organs this time, perhaps trying to avoid drawing attention to a recent controversy arising at resettlement camps.
Despite China's open door policy toward the refugees, few newcomers want to make China their permanent home.
At Pingxiang, every refugee interviewed was seeking residence in another country -- England, France or the United States -- countries that restrict immigration to relatives of people residing in those countries.
Even though most Pingxiang dwellers do not meet those qualifications, they refuse to go to Chinese state farms, claiming that relatives still living in Vietnam would suffer if word got back that they had resettled in China.
"How can I stay here, [China] when my mother and father are still there [Vietnam]?" asked Pan Genfeng, 30, a former electrical worker from Haiphong who fled last November after losing his job and grain rations. "My parents will certainly be persecuted if I stay in China."
Relief officials, however, believe there also are less altruistic reasons for seekig asylum abroad. After hearing about life on the austere state farms where their predecessors settled within a few weeks of arrival, the newcomers are said to be looking for a brighter future.
"Why would anyone want to leave a deprived place like Vietnam and end up in a Chinese state farm reclaiming land for 30 yuan [$20] a month?" asked an international relief officier who handles the cases of Vietnam immigrants.
For almost all of the refugees at Pingxiang, no solution seems in sight. Representatives of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees do no even submit the residency requests to the embassies of other countries unless the refugees have relatives living there.
Yet some of the Pingxiang dwellers have been waiting since last April for what appears to be the impossible drem, languishing without work or schools for the children at the crowded camp of small improvised buildings encircling a cement courtyard.
The ambiguous status of these refugees presents an increasingly difficult dilemma for Peking, which has tried to win favor among the world's 40 million overseas Chinese by showing sensitivity and generosity toward the fleeing ethnic Chinese of Vietnam.
But in a country where millions go to bed hungry every night, Peking may have trouble continuing to justify the mounting costs of providing 33 pounds of rice per month, cash subsidies, shelter and clothing to an overseas Chinese refugee who does not choose to accept China as his refuge.
"We will try to persuade them to settle in China," said Ma Yunzhen, director of the Pingxiang camp." "If they don't want to stay in China, we will help them go back to Vietnam. Housing is already a problem here. People are sleeping outside in the courtyard.
"But we will not force them [to stay in China or return to Vietnam]. It's up to them. CAPTION: Pictures 1 and 2, Many of the refugees at the camp near Pingxiang had to pay bribes to leave Vietnam. It cost Sun Zicai, $1,500 to flee with his wife and two children.