In the months after Chinese military forces crushed the pro-democracy movement in Beijing, some protest leaders wanted by Chinese authorities said they fled their country only to face difficulties seeking refuge in the United States.
After unsuccessful attempts to get U.S. visas or being discouraged from even trying after hearing of the difficulties in obtaining one, at least a dozen exiled protesters have found temporary sanctuary in countries such as West Germany, France and Canada, where the governments have been more open to their pleas for help, they say.
"I was surprised," said Cai Chongguo, a scholar who was a leader in the protest movement in the city of Wuhan. "American support for the democracy movement was so widespread, yet when we need help on some small thing like this, it seems no one can help."
Cai spoke in a telephone interview from Paris, where he and at least four others eventually obtained political asylum.
Expected More Flexibility
Cai and other Chinese dissidents said that after the military crackdown in Beijing, they thought that the United States would be more flexible in granting visas, especially after President Bush pledged June 13 to assign more diplomats to process visas and do "whatever it takes" to help Chinese nationals fleeing their country.
The promise was to give a yes or no answer promptly, but a State Department official said then that, in practice, a high percentage of the requests would be granted.
But some of the Chinese dissidents who have managed to escape now say that the promise was not kept.
In the case of one journalist on a government blacklist in Shenzhen, waiting for a U.S. visa in Hong Kong meant nearly three weeks of terror as she stayed in hiding for fear of being captured by Chinese agents, said Cao Changqing, editor of the Alhambra-based Press Freedom Herald.
Changed Hiding Place
"For 20 days, the U.S. Consulate did not respond," Cao said of his friend's visa application. He put the friend, Chen Anchi, in touch with supporters in Hong Kong. "She changed her hiding place four times," he said.
Desperate for safe haven, Chen finally went to the French Consulate and was granted political asylum within one hour, Cao said. She just showed French officials evidence such as articles she had written that were critical of the Chinese government, he said. Another journalist at the top of the Shenzhen blacklist eventually decided to seek sanctuary in Canada, he said.
Two more journalists wanted by Chinese authorities remain stranded in Hong Kong, Cao said. After being questioned and released by Hong Kong officials last week, they were told they have three months to find a country willing to grant them permanent refuge, Cao said.
"Because none of the people we've tried to help have been able to get permission to come to the United States, these two are discouraged about their chances of finding refuge in this country," he said.
See Lack of U.S. Welcome
Cao said he and other pro-democracy supporters in the United States are getting the impression that "the U.S. government does not welcome (Chinese dissidents) because if they come, they will hurt Sino-U.S. relations." They said that the United States seems to have drawn the line after offering sanctuary to Chinese dissident Fang Lizhi at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.
"I'm not aware that our policy is any more stringent than France or Germany or any other country," said a State Department official who spoke on the condition that his name not be used. He said a person who has escaped China "is not in danger of his life outside of China."
A State Department statement prepared Aug. 15 said that U.S. consular offices worldwide have been instructed to review visa applications from Chinese nationals "as compassionately as possible, but they must work within the framework of existing immigration law," said department spokesman Adam Shub.
"Under the visa laws, there's a certain amount of discretion," said the State Department official who asked not to be identified, adding that visa examiners are all taking a more liberal view of when a visa applicant would return to China.
He said that since the June crackdown in Beijing, U.S. officials have also granted refugee status to an unspecified number of Chinese nationals who were able to prove that they have a well-founded fear of government persecution.
He also noted that U.S. officials allowed top Chinese dissidents such as Wuer Kaixi and Yan Jiaqi to visit this country earlier this month to attend a pro-democracy conference in Chicago and to tour the country on a fund-raising campaign. Wuer, Yan and four others were visiting from France, where they fled after China began its manhunt. Wuer has been admitted by Harvard University as an undergraduate this fall.
But for less famous exiled Chinese dissidents seeking visas to this country, the criteria being used by U.S. officials pose a "Catch-22" situation.