WASHINGTON — 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.' "