Political asylum in the U.S. of A

Matthew Hoy
By Matthew Hoy on August 1, 2002

In Wednesday's OpinionJournal.com, Claudia Rosett recounts the tale of Chinese dissident Zhang Shengli.

Zhang (the Chinese have their surnames first) isn't famous -- or at least he wasn't until Ms. Rosett's piece -- but he's certainly someone who deserves a place in the United States. Zhang has a history.

But 20 years ago he did something that was not at all ordinary. On April 17, 1982, he took a running leap at the heavily guarded U.S. Embassy in Beijing and hurled himself over the wall. Once inside, he asked for asylum. He knew it was a risky bid. "You survive, you gain freedom; you fail, you go to jail," is how he explained it to me.

He failed. After fruitless attempts to enlist help from the British and Greek embassies in whisking away Mr. Zhang undetected, the U.S. Embassy staff expelled him later that same day through a main gate. One of the officials then at the embassy, Charles Martin, witnessed what happened next. Chinese security officers, who had ringed the compound after they saw Mr. Zhang go over the wall, hustled him into a car and drove off.

After serving time in prison (doing hard labor -- if you're imagining the American prisons you see in the movies you're way off, even U.S. prisons aren't like they're portrayed in the movies), Zhang made his way again to the United States. Instead of living an extralegal existence as an illegal immigrant and hide in the Chinese-American community, he applied for asylum. Since his application, Zhang has been active as a Chinese dissident. Joining other, more famous, exiles in calling for democratic reform in China.

What has Zhang's thirst for freedom gotten him? In 2000, Boston immigration judge, Patricia Shepard examined Zhang's dissident activity and said:

"I give these almost no weight whatsoever." She further noted that Mr. Zhang couldn't even come up with a witness to prove his story of persecution in China.

Let me help out Ms. Shepard. It goes like this: If a Chinese citizen isn't a member of the communist party, then they're being persecuted. The very nature of the system itself is persecutorial. The burden of proof on Chinese citizens seeking asylum here should be so low that granting them asylum should be almost automatic.

Congress, the attorney general, secretary of state or someone needs to step in. Zhang shouldn't have to return to China until that means he is returning to a fledgling democracy. I'm sure that Zhang isn't alone when it comes to Chinese seeking freedom in the United States. The asylum system needs an overhaul -- and that can begin with finding Zhang a place in the United States.


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August 2002



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