WASHINGTON — A top State Department official, under heavy congressional criticism for not offering more help to Americans during the crisis in China, apologized today but said no one could have foreseen the violence that resulted from student demonstrations in Beijing.
"Of course we are not satisfied when we hear that major foul-ups took place," said Richard L. Williams, acting deputy assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs. "We are sorry, congressman."
Williams was responding to Rep. Ted Weiss (D-N.Y.), one of half a dozen lawmakers who took the department to task for not moving faster to evacuate Americans after the Tian An Men Square massacre. Weiss said the department and U.S. Embassy had exhibited an "aloof attitude" that angered citizens seeking help.
"Frantic parents called my office with desperate pleas for help in getting their sons and daughters out of China," said Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Panorama City), who said his staff booked flights for students. "If we were able to make these arrangements from Los Angeles, why couldn't the State Department provide such assistance?"
Rep. Rod Chandler (R-Wash.), citing a case in his congressional district, said the State Department has denied visas to Chinese grandparents who sought to bring grandchildren who are U.S. citizens to the United States.
Chandler and others said it was simply "luck" that no Americans were killed or seriously wounded in the violent aftermath of the June 3-4 crackdown on student pro-democracy protests.
Williams described efforts by the Embassy to provide transportation for Americans to airports, but Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley) said one of his constituents seeking help was told by a diplomatic official that "the consulate is not in the taxi business."
Williams claimed success for the evacuation effort, noting that more than 6,000 Americans had left China over the last week in "one of the largest evacuations of Americans in a crisis situation since World War II." About 1,000 Americans remain, along with 182 U.S. government personnel, he said.
But under questioning from Rep. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine), Williams conceded that the U.S. Embassy in Beijing did not advise Americans to leave China until June 6, three days after the crackdown started and well after embassies of other countries had alerted their nationals to the danger.
Snowe said the State Department "really didn't have a plan in place" to cope with the emergency. She acknowledged that it was difficult to anticipate the violence, but added, "Ultimately, we should have gotten the drift that something was going awry."
Williams appeared at the hearing only under an agreement that he would not be asked about the handling of the case of prominent dissident Fang Lizhi, who with his wife was granted refuge at the U.S. Embassy after the violence. The gesture, and a warrant later issued by the government for Fang's arrest, has heightened U.S.-Chinese tensions.