YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

For One Chinese Voyager, an Answer to Prayers : Immigration: His companions endured a floating hell aboard smugglers' ships in vain, but for Liu Jiang, there is hope of a new life in the United States. The young schoolteacher's claim of religious persecution wins him the right to seek asylum.


EL CENTRO — Liu Jiang is a fortunate pilgrim.

Last month, a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter plucked him, and him alone, from a floating hell aboard three squalid smuggling ships off the coast of Ensenada.

It was the day of his epiphany. After the immigration officials told him he was going to America, after the Coast Guard sailors shook his hand, after he looked down for the last time at the three boats packed with exhausted and fearful Chinese emigres, he realized there was only one explanation for his good fortune.

"Because I am a Christian, maybe God has secretly protected me," said Liu, a 22-year-old schoolteacher and religious activist from Fujian province. "Because in the ship I was the only one who was a Christian. . . . During the passage on board the ship, I prayed every day. When I was on board the ship, I knew that I would come to America."

There were about 670 U.S-bound Chinese aboard the three smuggling vessels whose odyssey provoked an international incident last month when the Coast Guard intercepted them off Baja California. Mexico finally agreed to deport the passengers; they were hustled ashore July 17 and flown back to China.

But while diplomats negotiated, officers of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service were taking on the chaotic task of conducting interviews aboard the boats, a process that human rights activists criticized as unfair.

On the day before the Mexican Navy escorted the boats into Ensenada, immigration officers decided that one of the dozens of migrants asking for political asylum should be allowed into the United States to pursue his claim: Liu.

He is a longhaired, startlingly youthful farmer's son from a small village where cars are an exotic sight, a devout Christian who says his evangelism incurred the wrath of repressive local authorities. Alleged religious persecution is the basis of his asylum case.

During an interview last week, Liu gave The Times the first personal account of the ill-fated three-month voyage. He recalled poignant images: Some passengers changed into their best clothes--some putting on ties--when U.S. military vessels appeared on the horizon, thinking their trip had ended triumphantly.

Liu described grinding despair--filth, fistfights, near riots--during the trip and 10 days of detention at sea. And he said fellow passengers singled him out for abuse because of his faith.

"It was very dangerous," he said through an interpreter at the INS detention center in El Centro, where he awaits an asylum hearing. "The fact that I have lived until now was due to luck."

The outline of Liu's story fits the increasingly familiar pattern of impoverished Fujianese emigres making the illegal passage by sea, though his religious background makes his case stand out.

Liu did not complete high school; but in the village of Lian Jiang, the townspeople respected him as an educated young man. He taught Chinese classics and language to third-graders.

Christianity--ingrained in him by his Siberian-born grandmother--dominated his life. A leader of a small church without minister or denomination, Liu sought converts with priestlike dedication.

"I still haven't had a girlfriend," he said with a sheepish, disarming grin. "Being a Christian over there, it is hard to find a girlfriend."

China's Communist government tolerates private religious activity but frowns on overt practice, according to experts. Christians in particular have been targeted with harassment, according to Liu's lawyer, Helen Sklar of Los Angeles.

Last year, representatives of the dreaded "cultural section" of the local government warned Liu that they would throw him in jail if the recruiting continued, Liu said. Others in the 50-member congregation, which received funding from an overseas religious organization, were also hounded by officials and by Buddhists, he said.

A year of harassment convinced the young teacher to join the exodus from Fujian. A well-connected friend arranged his departure in mid-April on the Long Sen I, a Taiwanese trawler-turned-smuggling ship, in exchange for a pledge to work off a $10,000 fee. The boat's hold carried 169 cramped passengers--and had one air vent.

"It had been a place to store fish. The passengers were (crammed together) like fish."

Mistreatment added to the misery of nauseating conditions and a lack of food, Liu said. The smugglers meted out beatings to migrants accused of stealing. Liu prayed and read the Bible--catching the eye of several fellow passengers, who set about tormenting him. They beat him up, took his food and threw his crucifix and Bible into the sea, he said.

"They had prejudice against Christians," Liu said.

In early July, a U.S. military plane swooped overhead, followed soon by the Coast Guard cutters. A special Coast Guard team armed with shotguns came aboard, searched the Long Sen and took up positions on the deck. It was July 4th.

Los Angeles Times Articles