China is imposing further controls over its winding frontier with Myanmar as its scrambles to contain a COVID-19 outbreak in bordering regions.
Over the weekend, the Chinese government tightened controls in parts of Yunnan bordering Myanmar one week starting Sunday, shuttering public venues such as karaoke parlors, gyms, museums, and theaters. The move came after the border city of Ruili reported 12 COVID-19 cases during mass testing imposed after the discovery last week of three infected people, including a Myanmar national.
The discovery prompted Ruili to go into lockdown for the second time in four months. In March, China shut the main crossing to Myanmar as cases rose across the border.
Myanmar is currently battling its most severe outbreak of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, compounded by the state of escalating unrest prompted by the military’s seizure of power in February. Over the past week, the country has recorded new highs of more than 4,000 daily new cases, and much worse is likely to come given the current paralysis of much of the country’s health infrastructure.
As one of the major border crossings with Myanmar, the authorities in Ruili seem concerned that people might try to flood across the border into China to escape the turmoil within the country. Long before the advent of COVID-19, however, the Chinese government had struggled to maintain control of Yunnan’s winding, 2,200-kilometer border with Myanmar, which runs through territories controlled by ethnic armed groups and rebel armies that have long been a conduit for trade, much of it illicit.
On July 7, Zhai Yulong, secretary of the Ruili Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, said that illegal border crossings from Myanmar would be severely punished. “Ruili will continue to strengthen border control measures,” Zhai said, according to the South China Morning Post. “[We will] strictly crack down on illegal entry and severely punish illegal entrants and those who organize, assist, and offer accommodation.”
According to Radio Free Asia, China is also enforcing the closure with a newly built barbed-wire fence running along long stretches of the border. The fence, whose construction began after the first lockdown in Ruili at the end of September 2020, is intended to prevent COVID-19 from migrating across the border. According to RFA, a 600-kilometer span of the barrier is now nearing completion.
The construction of the border barrier was confirmed by the state mouthpiece Global Times, which described it as “walls made of iron wire,” and said it also included CCTV cameras “to prevent illegal border crossings.”
China’s construction of the border fence is a dramatic illustration of the extent to which the region’s porous borders remain a serious potential conduit for the disease. But as I suggested back in December, the barrier is also a way of addressing longstanding concerns about trafficking and smuggling across the porous frontier. The unrest in Myanmar will only have increased Beijing’s perceived concern about the border and its desire to control over what – and who – is able to cross it.