Time is running out for Liang Lintao and tens of thousands of other naturalised Venezuelans who returned to China in recent years but could be forced to return to the troubled South American country when their visas expire, under new Chinese restrictions.
In early 2017, after living in Venezuela for 24 years, Liang returned to his Chinese hometown of Enping, a county-level city in Guangdong province across the mainland border from Hong Kong. He is now among roughly 30,000 Chinese-Venezuelans living in Enping – most having returned in the last few years as social upheaval and hyperinflation took an increasingly heavy toll on Venezuelans’ livelihoods.
Liang had thought it would be a short trip – a brief respite until the situation improved. But nearly four years later, he remains stuck, afraid of returning to a country that he considers his home, but also a very dangerous place to be.
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The Chinese government had been accommodating, even after Venezuela stopped issuing new passport booklets to its citizens in late 2017, citing a lack of materials needed to create them. Venezuelan passport holders, including those who had returned to China, were instead given the option of extending their existing passports.
But everything changed on the afternoon of November 30, when Chinese authorities suddenly stopped accepting the extension documents, instead demanding that Venezuelans present new passports to receive a China visa.
The 30,000 of us will either have to overstay illegally or leave China to return to a shattered Venezuela
With Liang’s visa due to expire next month, and as he is unable to obtain a new Venezuelan passport, the move could prevent him from legally staying in China. Beijing does not recognise dual nationality, and any individual who obtains a second passport is required to renounce their Chinese citizenship.
“It means that, sooner or later, the 30,000 of us will either have to overstay illegally or leave China to return to a shattered Venezuela,” Liang said. “These people, including me, are facing the problem of passport expiration, and once our passports expire, we will be stuck in the predicament of not being able to renew our visas to stay in China.
“All of us are scared and feel helpless as we are seeing a growing number of people’s bank accounts being frozen soon after their passports expire, along with having to pay a fine up to 12,000 yuan (US$1,840) for overstaying.”
When contacted by the Post, staff members at the consulate general of Venezuela in Guangzhou, and at the Foreign Affairs and Overseas Chinese Affairs Bureau of Enping, said they were aware of the situation involving Chinese-Venezuelans in Enping and were in the process of liaising with relevant departments. A request for comment emailed to the Venezuelan consulate was not immediately answered.
Due to the difficulty in obtaining a new Venezuelan passport, many countries, including the United States, Canada, Spain and several Latin American countries, have been accepting expired Venezuelan passports.
In Venezuela, Liang was considered an influential Chinese community leader. By his estimation, at least 60,000 people – either with Chinese or Venezuelan passports – have returned to China since 2014 as mass anti-government protests spread through the South American country.
At its peak, Venezuela’s Chinese population numbered about 400,000 when Nicolas Maduro became president in 2013. Beijing still formally backs Maduro, who held on to power for a second six-year term last year even as the nation has been experiencing its worst economic crisis in history.
Those who returned to China are dismayed and fearful at the idea of being forced to return to Venezuela, particularly as the country is still reeling from the coronavirus amid an extreme shortage of medical supplies, Liang said. Meanwhile, China has brought the outbreak under control.
“There are more people every day trapped in passport expiration limbo,” Liang said, adding that he and others have been trying to appeal for help from Chinese authorities via the media and the Venezuelan consulate in Guangzhou. But the group has not received any official reply from entry and exit officials.
He Qukian, a man in his sixties who has lived in Venezuela for more than 40 years, is among those who opted to stay there. But life has not been easy.
“Whether they are in Enping or in Venezuela, most Chinese immigrants are struggling to make a living,” said He, who used to run seven grocery stories across Venezuela but has seen that number drop to five because of the ongoing economic and political turmoil.
“Most multinational companies have quit the Venezuelan market, and a big percentage of the country’s daily necessaries and food depends on imports from China,” He said. “But our business is still struggling to survive because of hyperinflation and the [coronavirus] lockdown nationwide.
“Water and power outages are a normal part of everyday life. Stores are only allowed to operate every other week, and for only three hours a day. Due to the shortage of gasoline, few locals can find transport to the downtown area.”
Various state-run factories – including producers of steel, oil, cement and automobiles – have all shut down, and almost all China-supported projects – from construction to telecommunications – are now deserted, He said.
Over the past decade, China has loaned about US$50 billion to Venezuela, and while Caracas has been gradually paying off that debt with oil shipments, it still owes Beijing about US$20 billion.
Amid the worsening economic conditions in Venezuela, Chinese immigrants are among those finding it increasingly difficult to make a living. Cherry Chen is among those who stayed in Venezuela as long as she could, before fleeing the country’s chaos last year and returning to Enping.
“Most of us are engaging in the business of trading with Venezuela. Inflation is so horrible in Venezuela that we have to depend on our bank accounts in China to make transactions for trades via yuan,” Chen said.
The first Chinese immigrants from Enping arrived in Venezuela 160 years ago. Others followed, becoming shopkeepers and restaurateurs and expanding into other trades as well as mining.
Mingo Zhong, who lived and worked in Venezuela for a decade before returning home to Enping in 2017, said most of the Chinese overseas returnees are in their forties or older and not well-educated, so they are finding it hard to live and work on the mainland.
The South American dream is just gone
“While we are staying in Enping, most of us have put money into small service businesses while we wait for the situation in Venezuela to settle down,” he said. “Some are working as waiters and waitresses at local restaurants in the interim.
“Many are running out of savings and are having to sell the properties that they bought in Enping,” Zhong added. “The local economy in Enping has strong connections with Venezuela’s economy. During the good old days in Venezuela, China immigrants were among the wealthiest buyers of local high-end real estate in the city.”
Enping’s gross domestic product was 18.691 billion yuan (US$2.86 billion) last year, a year-on-year increase of 4.9 per cent, which failed to match the 5.5 per cent target that local authorities had set.
“We feel we have no future in either China or Venezuela, and the younger generation dreams of moving to Shenzhen,” Chen lamented. “The South American dream is just gone.”
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