The top "border guard" in the United States, INS head Doris Meissner, is traveling throughout China this week to try to drum up support for a joint clampdown on illegal, would-be trans-Pacific migrants.
The Commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service partly blames "official collusion" in human smuggling rings here for the skyrocketing number of Chinese who are evading border patrols to enter the US or Western Europe.
Ms. Meissner says she and a large delegation of US immigration officials flew to Beijing to underscore the importance of combating "alien smuggling and the abusive practices involved ... [which were] horrifically demonstrated three weeks ago in Dover, England."
She was referring to the deaths of 58 Chinese who suffocated as they were being secretly trucked into Britain in an underground exodus that began in China's Fujian province and ended just short of the migrants' promised land: the rich, free West.
Meissner says while Beijing has offered help in repatriating Chinese detained in the US as illegal immigrants, it has been less forthcoming in tracking down and punishing snakeheads, or mafia-type gang leaders who run smuggling rings here.
Meissner is now visiting Fujian, on China's east coast, which for the past half year has been the epicenter of a multibillion-dollar corruption scandal. Despite a crackdown on smuggling that has netted top Communist Party, military, and Customs officials, Fujian remains a haven for snakeheads, and US officials imply corrupt communist cadres must be shielding some gang leaders.
Meissner says that while 1,000 illegal immigrants from China were sent back by the US in 1999, the figure is likely to quadruple this year.
China's Communist leadership, meanwhile, is repeating calls for the US to end its policy of granting sanctuary to the politically and religiously persecuted who seek freedom on American shores.
A top Chinese official recently said the US should end its role as a beacon of refuge for dissidents worldwide in order to prevent its beams of freedom from attracting all types of migrants, from political to economic.
The state-run China Daily recently quoted a foreign ministry official here as saying "criminal gangs, taking advantage of flaws in other countries' laws, often get would-be immigrants to apply for political asylum in their target countries," and suggested that ending asylum would stop the flow of illicit migration.
Experts on both sides of the Pacific say the US and other target nations, as the world's leading promoters of free world trade, may have unleashed an unstoppable side-effect of globalization as more humans begin following finance, information, culture, and television signals that criss-cross the planet at ever-greater speeds.
Yan Xuetong, a scholar at the Chinese Institute of Contemporary International Relations, says that for a growing number of Chinese, the World Wide Web provides navigation tools not only for cyberspace, but also for political havens across the planet for various groups.
Mr. Yan, who works at a government think tank in Beijing, says members of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement living in exile "are using the Internet to tell fellow practitioners [in China] to come to the US to get asylum."
He says it is somewhat ironic that Washington, which for decades has been pushing Beijing to open up to the world, is now asking China to use police and soldiers to maintain prisonlike controls on its borders.
But rather than echo Beijing's calls for target countries in the West to strengthen their legal fortresses against immigration, Yan says every nation in the world should start dismantling its barriers to cross-border movement as part of a trend toward global rights standards.
"Freedom of movement should be regarded as important as freedom of speech," says Yan. "If you don't have the right to speak out in country A, you should at least have the freedom to move to another country where you do have that right."
To illustrate the point, Yan says "the people of North Korea should have the right to move if they don't have freedom of speech in their homeland."
In taking that stand, Yan is in conflict with his government, which refuses to grant refugee status or asylum to North Koreans who manage to secretly cross into China.
Frank Lu, a one-time Chinese democracy activist who now monitors the mainland's human rights abuses from Hong Kong, says there is another reason the US should not press too strongly for China to erect a bamboo curtain around its borders.
Mr. Lu says that while snakeheads have led countless Chinese into danger or death, they have also on occasion provided invaluable help for dissidents to flee to safety abroad.
Lu should know: He was a student leader during the massive pro-democracy protests that shook China in 1989, and was imprisoned in southern China until he escaped four years later.
"I paid 3,000 yuan to snakeheads who used a speedboat to take me to Hong Kong," Lu says. "And the government quickly gave me political asylum."
But since British rule over Hong Kong ended with China's takeover in 1997, Lu says the enclave has stopped providing sanctuary to Chinese dissidents, and adds that they will in the future be forced to forge pacts with snakeheads to reach political protection in the West.
The INS commissioner said earlier this week in Beijing, that although Washington is unlikely to be able to stop the flow of illegal migrants without Beijing's help, the US had no intention of bolting American gates to victims of Chinese repression.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society