Despite warnings from Chinese government officials to end support for the pro-democracy movement in their homeland, Chinese students at UC San Diego this week publicly asked President Bush to sign a bill allowing the estimated 30,000 students in the United States to remain indefinitely and not return home to possible punishment for their political views.
In an interview Sunday with The Times, six students said that, without the bill's protection, they will be required to return immediately upon completion of studies, even if there should be no change in the harsh Chinese political climate following the June 4 army massacre of protesters in Tien An Men Square in Beijing. The lack of immigration security will chill their desire to continue speaking out for reforms, they said.
"This is not a bill of immigration but one of human rights, of minimum protection," student Shizhong Chen said over the weekend. "We students (abroad) are the only voice keeping the democratic movement alive in China since the situation in my (homeland) is so severe now. . . . We need the bill so that, in the freest country in the world, we can continue to speak out freely."
Their resolve has been strengthened, they added, by events in Eastern Europe, where student-led protests for democracy have triggered governmental changes in Hungary, East Germany and Czechoslovakia.
"The right to be protected from arbitrary government power, to have a meaningful say about your life, these rights transcend historical distinctions" whether Czech or Chinese, said John Minan, associate dean of the University of San Diego School of Law. Minan, co-author of a textbook on Chinese law, has offered his support to the students in easing immigration regulations.
The U.S. State Department has recommended that Bush veto the bill, which passed both houses of Congress unanimously, on the grounds that its enactment would end educational exchanges with the Beijing regime, which Chinese officials have threatened. Should a veto occur, Congress would be unable to attempt an override until after it reconvenes early next year.
"If Bush should veto, then it will look as if he is yielding to the pressure of the Chinese government," Hong-Ming Zhang said. "And the prestige of the American government will turn into dust in the eyes of the Chinese people."
More than 230 Chinese students, mostly at the graduate level in science research, study at UCSD, forming one of the largest contingents among American universities. "We actively participated in the pro-democracy movement here," Chen said, referring to the many demonstrations in Southern California that UCSD students joined last spring. "If we were to go home now, there definitely would be some sort of punishment."
The punishments would range, they fear, from jail to banishment in the countryside where they would have no opportunity to use their years of academic training.
"Student leaders could face jail sentences," Bing Xiao said, noting that several organizations formed in the United States and France after the massacre have been called anti-Chinese by the Beijing government. "Or we could be asked to criticize capitalism, to go in front of groups and say how bad America is, to repeat those things time after time, those kinds of lies."
Hedong Yang added: "And any activities we do here could go into your personal history file and stay with you over and over and over, like what happened during the Cultural Revolution."
"Actual jail or political jail, it doesn't matter," Chen said.
Already, the students have felt pressure, direct and indirect, from Chinese authorities.
"When we talk with parents or friends by telephone, they don't say anything about the massacre but switch the subject when we talk about it," Xiao, head of the UCSD Chinese student association, said. "We can feel the fear of our families."
In other hints of pressure, Xiaotie Deng said, his mother "just says, 'study, study, study, don't get involved in anything' " when they talk by phone. And she has never mentioned two letters he wrote about the Tien An Men Square killings, leading Deng to wonder if they were intercepted by authorities and never received by his family.
Even before the events last spring, students were aware of potential pressures to avoid political activity, Yang said. A former UCSD student, after returning to China, was questioned by authorities about certain statements he wrote in letters to his girlfriend several years before while studying here.
"I'd like President Bush to experience this and then ask how he would feel," Chen said.
Several new students from China enrolled at UCSD this September, and, although especially fearful of joining pro-democracy activity, they privately tell of horrible incidents the night of June 4, students said.
"One told me of being stained with blood, of pulling a (wounded) student behind a tree where they were hiding," Deng said.
Officials from the Chinese consulate in Los Angeles are known to visit UCSD and other campuses surreptitiously, the students say.