Expatriate politics routinely complicate the foreign policy options of American administrations. The Irish in Boston, the Haitians in New York, the Cubans in south Florida all exercise a disproportionate influence on American policy toward their respective home countries. There is nothing surprising or egregiously damaging to American interests in this fact. The case of human-rights campaigner Harry Wu, however, raises more troubling concerns.
Single-handedly, Wu has ensured that a confrontational, mutually distrustful tone will continue to dominate U.S.-China exchanges. The harsh comments of Hillary Rodham Clinton at the U.N. Conference on Women in Beijing were clearly designed to rebut suspicions that the Administration had cut a deal with China to obtain Wu's release in August.
Wu's central complaint about the lamentable state of Chinese political culture is legitimate. And his sincerity and personal bravery need no comment. But Wu's behavior and post-release remarks show that, intentionally or otherwise, he has forgotten the inherent bargain between the rights and the obligations arising from naturalization as an American citizen.
With immigration an increasingly controversial issue, clear thinking about this bargain is more than ever needed. In its essentials, the bargain looks something like this: New citizens unreservedly enjoy all the benefits of native-born American citizenship; in return, these new citizens are expected to regard themselves as wholly American, as having chosen America as their final destination, not as a port of call. This is what Barbara Jordan, chairwoman of the congressional Commission on Immigration Reform, calls the "Americanization ideal."
In responding to Wu's arrest, the Administration played by the book: It defended Wu as an American citizen. In doing so, it was upholding the long-held American view that when a foreigner assumes American citizenship, he "expatriates" himself from his country of origin, which ceases to have any claim against him. In 1812, the young American Republic went to war with Britain to establish this precept by rejecting the Crown's claim that it was entitled to impress Americans of British origin into the Royal Navy.
Many countries, including most of Europe, do not share this concept of full and final expatriation. Even after naturalization, they regard the country of origin as retaining rights over the individual should he return to that country. The British, for instance, would have warned Wu (had he been a naturalized British citizen) that, on returning to China, he placed himself outside British protection.
Where Wu can be faulted is that he seems to regard American citizenship as sort of a flag of convenience. He partakes of the benefits but pays none of the costs. Although naturalized as an American, he speaks of China as "my people" and identifies with their suffering as "my blood" and "my tears." His new U.S. passport enables him to escape the worst consequences of his arrest in China. But he shows little concern that his actions may have dragged the United States into the maelstrom of Chinese domestic politics and thus damaged the interests of his adopted country.
Wu was displaying attitudes that, according to recent academic studies, are increasingly typical of new immigrants to America. Ethnographer Gabriel Sheffer of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who recently taught at UC Berkeley, has produced evidence from his research of recent immigrants in California indicating that economic advantage was the principal motivation for coming to the United States. In comparison to earlier generations, they showed less interest in "Americanizing" themselves in the sense of transferring their political loyalties to America.
If true, this shift in attitudes portends dramatic domestic ramifications, discussion of which is already appearing in the speeches of 1996 presidential hopefuls. Foreign policy may be influenced if many new immigrants continue to see themselves as actors in the politics of their mother countries. The risk is that their actions will pitch the United States into foreign quarrels not of its choosing and in direct conflict with its interests.
The concept of what it means to be an American is highly individualistic. The Wu case illustrates the stresses to which it is exposed today. Unattended, stresses can turn into major fractures. It will not be possible to lay down hard and fast rules for the political actions of new immigrants. But, before new crises develop, it would make sense for the government to remind all new citizens of the traditional bargain between rights and obligations.