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Why aren't we taking every Chinese refugee we can?
Let's be the City on a Hill again.
“She's still a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home” — Ronald Reagan
I highly encourage everyone to read this Wall Street Journal story about Chinese people fleeing Xi Jinping’s regime by sneaking into Mexico and then coming up through the southern U.S. border:
The Chinese migrants making dangerous treks through Latin America are a subset of the larger outflow of Chinese of all wealth levels. Under Mr. Xi, the private sector has been squeezed, forcing layoffs and driving away entrepreneurs. Others worry political repression will only get more suffocating as Mr. Xi embarks on his third term in power…
The United Nations refugee agency counted 116,868 Chinese seeking asylum around the world at a point measured in mid-2022, up from 15,362 at the end of 2012, the year Mr. Xi took power. The U.N. numbers don’t include Chinese who enter other countries using work, tourist or other types of visas—often people with more assets and education—which have also increased in the past decade…
The Chinese taking the Latin America route are generally those with low incomes, education levels and skills, who have little to no chance of securing a U.S. visa. Many lost their livelihood in the pandemic, when much of China shut down, or had traumatic encounters with Chinese authorities.
And here’s one of the graphs:
The article mostly tells the incredible, harrowing story of one such refugee; if you have a subscription or some free articles at the WSJ, I heavily recommend reading the whole thing.
My immediate thought upon reading this was: Why aren’t we taking as many Chinese refugees as we possibly can?
Now, folks like the guy in this story are not “refugees” by the technical definition; . They’re either asylum-seekers, which is a technically different thing, or they’re people who just try to move to escape a bad situation back home. But to me this is a distinction without a difference; these are people who want to get away from the China that Xi Jinping has created, and we, the United States, should be doing everything we can to help them get away.
Xi’s China is slowly morphing into an extremely unpleasant place to live. Ubiquitous surveillance technologies have turned the country into a panopticon. If you live in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, or Tibet, there is mass repression; elsewhere, there’s only the selective repression of anyone who speaks up on behalf of labor rights, the environment, etc. Religion is suppressed, as of course is free speech. The government even tells you when you’re allowed to play video games and what pop stars you’re allowed to be a fan of.
In the past, the CCP’s unofficial deal with the Chinese people was that they could have economic freedom and prosperity in exchange for giving up their political rights; now, to paraphrase a famous line, Xi is altering the deal, and Chinese people simply have to pray he doesn’t alter it any further. The state’s role in the economy has increased, and private entrepreneurship and initiative in the IT sector and the finance sector and the education sector have been harshly cracked down upon. Youth unemployment in the country is at 19.6%.
That sounds like the kind of place that, were I living there, I would try to move away from. And so a number of Chinese people — both the rich and the poor alike — are trying to get out.
The United States has long prided itself on helping people get out of situations like that. George Washington famously said:
I had always hoped that this land might become a safe and agreeable asylum to the virtuous and persecuted part of mankind, to whatever nation they might belong.
The bosom of America is open to receive not only the Opulent and respected Stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all Nations and Religions; whom we shall welcome to a participation of all our rights and privileges…
Speaking two centuries later, Ronald Reagan said very similar things:
America's freedom does not belong to just one nation. We're custodians of freedom for the world…We lead the world because, unique among nations, we draw our people — our strength — from every country and every corner of the world.
As well as the quote at the top of this post.
Anyway, I don’t think I could express the ideal of U.S. immigration better than those quotes, so instead I’ll just point out that this ideal is still deeply enmeshed in our collective sense of who we are as a country. Across races and genders and ages, the idea of America as a “nation of immigrants” commands vast support:
Deeper sociological research has found that the idea of immigration is a key source of patriotism and national identity for Americans of all stripes.
That ideal doesn’t always translate into policy, of course. Nor does it mean Americans want a policy of open borders. In fact, the country has gone through repeated bursts of xenophobia and even some periods of immigration restriction. But the ideal of immigration remains.
And what better way to express that ideal than to help Chinese people escape the crushing grip of Xi Jinping and the CCP? What more straightforward way could there be to carry out our national mission?
Beyond idealistic concerns, there are also pragmatic ones. The U.S. is increasingly enmeshed in a global competition with China that, while it has less of an ideological dimension than the first Cold War, still depends to some extent on soft power. The fact that people still want to move from China to America — and not vice versa — is a strong indication that the type of world America wants to create would be better than the type of world China would create. By taking in Chinese refugees, we demonstrate the moral superiority of our cause.
And yet some elements in the U.S. seem dead set on throwing that advantage away. Here is what a Utah senator tweeted in response to the WSJ story:
That Mike Lee has chosen to depict Chinese refugees as an invasion of the U.S., rather than an expression of the dream of America as a bastion of freedom and an opportunity to one-up our greatest rival, reveals a deep sickness within certain corner of our body politic. Fortunately, many of Lee’s fellow Republicans are not so blind and foolish as he is, and see the great opportunity here.
There will be at least two major counterarguments to the idea of admitting waves of Chinese refugees. First, some will worry about Chinese spies entering the country under the guise of refugees. There’s no denying that Chinese spying is a huge problem. Chinese IP theft was estimated to cost the U.S. economy hundreds of billions of dollars every year in the late 2010s. China built fighter jets and airliners with stolen U.S. tech. And the export controls on China’s semiconductor industry are going to be a lot less effective if China continues to steal chipmaking tech. Caldor Walton, a historian at Harvard, writes that China has been waging an all-out spy war on the U.S. for decades.
But Chinese refugees aren’t going to be in much of a position to conduct espionage. The people who are in a position to steal U.S. tech secrets are engineers, researchers, and other employees at U.S. tech companies and universities. For better or worse, a massive campaign to root out espionage by Chinese nationals working at U.S. universities and tech companies has resulted in a mass exodus of Chinese researchers:
I have serious issues with how this campaign was conducted — it didn’t seem to net many actual spies, it created an unnecessary climate of fear among Chinese people working in the U.S., and it has the potential to deprive the U.S. of key talent, ironically weakening us in the competition against China. But the fact is, Chinese refugees are not going to be working in sensitive research roles. And if they tried to get those jobs, they would likely be prevented from doing so by the U.S. export control regime, which bars Chinese nationals from working in certain positions in the U.S., under the rationale that this would represent a “deemed export” of intellectual property.
In short, the danger of a damaging spy campaign being embedded in a wave of freedom-seeking refugees is extremely low, and the freakout about this seems to reflect early Cold War 2 paranoia — and some thinly-disguised xenophobia — rather than any rational concern.
The second counterargument will be that letting Chinese asylum-seekers in would represent a collapse of the integrity of America’s borders. In recent years, asylum-seekers have learned that there’s a loophole in American law where if you cross the border illegally and turn yourself in to the Border Patrol, you can get an asylum hearing much faster than if you present yourself lawfully at a point of entry. This loophole has not only resulted in a highly predictable flood of illegal crossings — which makes many Americans feel that their country has lost control of its borders — but it has also made the asylum process seem extremely unfair, since those who don’t violate any laws to get here have to wait longer.
In a post back in February, I wrote that we have to fix this situation in order to keep Americans in a pro-immigration mood:
Americans do not like crises. Although they do like immigration, they don’t like the idea that their government is not in control of its own borders. This sentiment is clearly visible in a recent NPR poll, where 40% of Democrats, and a majority of Americans overall, said that the situation can at least somewhat accurately be described as an “invasion”…Meanwhile, support for increased border security has risen strongly, with a strong majority now in favor. This includes Latino voters, who are increasingly concerned about the situation.
Joe Biden responded to this pressure by tightening up asylum policy, reinstating some of the methods Trump had used to make asylum-seekers wait outside the country. Border crossings have fallen since then, and hopefully people will calm down about the so-called “invasion”.
But admitting Chinese asylum-seekers doesn’t mean having to submit to border chaos. An easier way would be to simply suspend visa requirements for Chinese tourists, the way we do for tourists from the 40 countries in the visa waiver program. Usually we only do this for countries that do the same for us, which China is highly unlikely to do. But there’s nothing in the Constitution that prevents us from granting visa waivers unilaterally! Once in the U.S. for tourism, Chinese people could simply mail a form to USCIS and apply for asylum.
Of course, China’s government would crack down harshly on people trying to get out this way, to avoid the embarrassment of thousands of their people voting for an American future with their feet. But that would simply highlight the moral difference between the two countries, letting the whole world know that China is a prison that people want to escape. That in turn would diminish China’s efforts to portray its own society as superior to that of the U.S. on the global stage.
But whatever the specific policy we use, taking in Chinese refugees — or whatever you want to call people seeking to escape Xi’s regime for the freedom of America — seems like a clear imperative. If the U.S. chooses to forfeit our traditional role as the “city on a hill”, hunching in a defensive crouch, terrified of the people beyond our borders, we will be a nation much diminished.