Another awkward case of a Chinese asylum-seeker

Washington has not heard the last from Chinese asylum-seekers. There are bound to be more cases beyond that of Hu Na, the tennis star granted asylum in the United States this week. The question is whether the US can quietly handle future bids of Chinese for asylum in a way that does not cause Peking to lose still more ''face.''

One case is already well on the way. Xia Yuren is an atmospheric scientist who, after spending nearly half a year at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, applied for political asylum.

Xia Yuren's lawyer, Thomas Surh, maintains his client is seeking asylum because in the past he had been barred from pursuing his research interests in China for political reasons. (During the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s and early '70s, Mr. Xia was sentenced to a labor camp.)

But his case poses a particular problem. In February 1982, Mr. Xia was released after one day in jail to the custody of a Chinese diplomat following a complaint from the security chief of the New Mexican institute. A misdemeanor charge based on allegations of campus misconduct was dropped in conjunction with an informal agreement that Mr. Xia return to China, according to Prof. Charles B. Moore, Mr. Xia's supervisor at the Langmuir Laboratory.

An allegation of misconduct against a Chinese student abroad could make such a student vulnerable to an accusation of humiliating China overseas. So the question is raised of whether Mr. Xia might be severely punished if returned to China. Before being taken by the Chinese envoy to San Francisco, Mr. Xia left a note for a judge in New Mexico. He said he expected to die after being sent back to China.

In San Francisco, Mr. Xia broke away from from Chinese consular officials, but the US Immigration and Naturalization Service moved to deport him on grounds his visa had expired. Mr. Xia then applied for asylum, putting the State Department on the spot by requiring an evaluation on whether his return might violate his human rights.

While out on bail pending further immigration hearings, Mr. Xia has been admitted into a doctoral program at the University of California at Davis, where he has been awarded a paying research assistantship, according to a university official.

In hearings before a San Francisco immigration judge in July, a leading American specialist on China, Professor Chalmers Johnson of the University of California at Berkeley, gave his view of China's system of punishment by forced labor. He challenged a State Department argument in court that Mr. Xia faced no danger if returned to China because the Chinese Embassy in Washington had given assurances.

Prof. Johnson argued that if an American foreign service officer concluded that a Soviet defector could be safely returned to the Soviet Union after similar assurances from the Soviet Embassy, he would probably be ''fired on the spot.'' The judge has invited a reply from the State Department to Prof. Johnson's testimony. According to Mr. Xia's lawyer, a new hearing has been set for April 18.

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