While working as a Chinese seaman, Zhu Chunfu made all the preparations. He saved his money at the rate of 27 cents a day. He established his trustworthiness with Chinese authorities by taking walks on the piers of ports around the world and then dutifully returning to his ship.
Finally, in October, 1984, he made his break. When Zhu's ship docked in Houston, he went for yet another walk on the dock. This time, he slipped away and hid in an old warehouse.
"I watched the ship grow smaller and smaller in size, and when I couldn't see it any more, I turned around and walked to the Greyhound bus terminal," recalled Zhu, 35, who is living in Los Angeles and working as a security guard.
Now, Zhu has become one of the many Chinese applicants who have tried to obtain political asylum in the United States--and failed. A form letter from the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service last August rejected his request for asylum, saying that "you have failed to establish a well-founded fear of persecution were you to return to China."
According to figures supplied to The Times by the INS, the overwhelming majority of applications for political asylum from China throughout this decade have been denied.
At least on the surface, the statistics appear to reflect a shrewd--if hard-nosed--pursuit of U.S. foreign-policy interests. By rebuffing individual Chinese who request political asylum, the United States avoids offending the Chinese government, which is seen as a counterweight to the military power of the Soviet Union.
Not only is it harder for Chinese to get political asylum in the United States than it is, on average, for applicants from the rest of the world, according to the INS figures, but Soviet applicants are twice as likely as Chinese to win political asylum.
Since 1980, the INS has acted on 479 requests for political asylum from China and approved only 132, or 28%. In contrast, it has handled 311 cases in which Soviet applicants have asked for political asylum in this country and approved 187, or 60%.
Officials at both the INS and the State Department, which is responsible for making recommendations to the INS on political asylum, insist that the differences between countries are accidental.
"You do this on an individualized basis," said Ralph Thomas, the INS's deputy assistant commissioner for refugees, asylum and parole.
"We provide advice on individual cases, not on a nation-by-nation basis," added a spokesman for the State Department's Bureau of Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs. "We don't do it by China, Poland or whatever."
At the same time, officials at both of these agencies acknowledge that their handling of requests for political asylum is based, at least in part, on official judgments about the general political situation in the nations from which the applicants are applying.
Thomas said that in making decisions about whether to grant political asylum, the INS consults reports compiled by the State Department and groups such as Amnesty International and Helsinki Watch on the human rights conditions in the applicants' countries.
"The Soviets have dealt very harshly with certain dissidents," Thomas said. "But the Chinese have used re-education in a less formal, non-detention setting."
(Reports by Amnesty International provide details on the detentions of a number of political and religious dissidents in China who have been jailed for years at a time. According to a 1984 report, punishment in early stages of detention for some of these Chinese prisoners has included solitary confinement over prolonged periods, the use of hand shackles with hands tied behind the back, beatings and a requirement to stand for 24 hours without food.)
Political asylum has become a particularly pressing issue for some of the 20,000 Chinese students now attending universities in the United States.
Last January, about 1,000 of these students signed an open letter to the Chinese Communist Party and the State Council, China's Cabinet, criticizing the crackdown on demonstrations in China and the forced resignation of former Communist Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang.
"We fear the recurrence of the political situation of the Cultural Revolution, in which 'ruthless struggle and merciless criticism' were rampant," the letter said.
Fear of Retaliation
The political situation in China has eased since then. Still, some of the students who signed the letter have asked for political asylum in this country, saying they are afraid that if they return to China, authorities there sooner or later will retaliate against them for their criticisms.
"I was one of the students who signed the letter," said one scientific researcher from Shanghai, who last June submitted a request to the INS for political asylum. "After it was published, Chinese officials from the consulate came to our campus and said, 'Tell us who wrote that letter.' "
The student asked The Times not to publish his name on grounds that it might cause problems for his relatives in China. If the INS turns down his application and his request is not publicly disclosed, he might eventually return to China and work there without Chinese officials knowing about it.
Even among themselves, Chinese students often are circumspect about their approaches to the INS.
"The less people who know, the better," said Che Shaoli, a Chinese student in Houston. "No one tells anyone else that they are requesting asylum."
The legal test that the INS applies in judging requests for political asylum is whether a person can show a well-founded fear of persecution in the home country. At the moment, Chinese students seeking political asylum from the INS are citing the fate of Che's husband as evidence of persecution of a student returning to China from the United States.
Che's husband, Yang Wei, a biology student at the University of Arizona, was home in Shanghai last January during the student demonstrations that spread through China. He was arrested and detained without charge and, 10 months later, has still not been released or brought to trial.
"We have raised the case with Chinese officials several times but to no avail," a State Department spokesman said last week. In September, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) introduced a Senate resolution calling upon the Reagan Administration to be more receptive to requests for political asylum by Chinese students.
One State Department specialist on China argued recently that the United States may well serve the cause of human rights better by making sure that Chinese students return home, instead of staying in this country.
"If we want to get our views on human rights across to the Chinese, can you think of a better way than getting their elite to come to free societies and letting them see how free societies work, and then having them go back to China?" this official asked. "We know from last winter's demonstrations that these returning students are having a remarkable effect upon Chinese society."
In the case of Zhu, the seaman who walked off the Chinese ship in Houston, these considerations do not apply. He cannot be considered a member of China's elite. After arriving in this country, he went to work in Chinese restaurants in Louisiana and Colorado before moving to Los Angeles. He also become active in political causes, joining a group called the Chinese Alliance for Democracy.
Although Zhu's request for asylum was turned down, he says, INS officials told him he will be allowed to appeal the decision and to continue to live and work in this country in the meantime.
"They didn't punish me," Zhu said of the U.S. officials handling the case. "They didn't give me political asylum, but they didn't punish me, and I am very thankful for that."
REQUESTS FOR POLITICAL ASYLUM
Over the past eight years, the Immigration and Naturalization Service has granted a far lower percentage of Chinese requests for asylum than Soviet requests.
FISCAL YEAR CHINA SOVIET UNION Granted Denied % Granted Granted Denied % Granted 1987 21 12 64% 32 8 80% 1986 18 10 64% 33 10 77% 1985 44 63 41% 26 30 46% 1984 15 32 32% 45 43 51% 1983 7 42 14% 18 5 78% 1982 8 94 8% 14 17 45% 1981 13 65 17% 4 9 31% 1980 6 29 21% 15 2 88% TOTAL (8 years) 132 347 28% 187 124 60%
FISCAL YEAR WORLD TOTALS Granted Denied % Granted 1987 5,093 3,454 60% 1986 4,284 7,882 35% 1985 6,514 14,172 31% 1984 11,627 32,344 26% 1983 2,479 7,313 25% 1982 3,996 7,552 35% 1981 1,179 3,350 26% 1980 1,104 896 55% TOTAL (8 years) 36,276 76,963 32%
Source: U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.