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Jason Dzubow on Political Asylum

Remembering the Golden Venture

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It's been 17 years since the Golden Venture ran aground off New York.  The Epoch Times remembers that fateful day in an interview with a Chinese fisherman who survived the ordeal, gained political asylum, and built a life for himself and his family in the United States:


"Jump! Jump! Hurry Up! Jump into the sea! You are in America. Or they will send you back to China," a man shouted hastily. Hundreds of Chinese men and women jumped from a rusty freighter into the cold water, swimming, struggling, crying, and gasping.



    Liu Ping


Ten people died as they struggled to swim to shore. After getting so close to the American dream, chased so painstakingly, they hit America's shoreline at the end of their lives.


"The water was freezing and my body was weak. I didn't know whether I could make it. I thought I was dying. I asked 'God help me'," recalled Liu Ping, 44, one of the survivors of 298 passengers on the Golden Venture that ran aground off New York at 2:00 a.m. on June 6, 1993.


Liu was one of the lucky survivors, and he was among the dozens who were granted asylum. Of the 298 people, 110 were deported to China, 53 were detained until 1997 when they were pardoned under a bill signed by President Clinton.


Now a permanent resident, Liu leads a peaceful and content life in Philadelphia with his wife and three children. Two of his children are U.S. born citizens. His other child was born in China and later became a naturalized American citizen. His wife, whom he married before coming to the U.S., also became a naturalized U.S. citizen.


A Survivor's Story


He'll never forgets how he made it - the Golden Venture experience.


Speaking with a thick Fujianese accent, Liu was emotional when recalling his 26-month journey from China to America. It was over land, mountains, across rivers, through a jungle, and finally over the ocean, using all possible method of travel imaginable.


The first words that he uttered on U.S. soil were "Thank you" to an American police officer.



"They [American police] got me out of the water, wrapped me in blanket. I was lying in the sand face down. The sand was warm and dry to me. I gained my consciousness."


"I opened my eyes, saw two white American policemen standing beside me. Looking into their eyes, not knowing what they would do to me, I said 'thank you'."


Making headline news on international media through an AP photo, Liu looked like an injured eagle captured in a cage severely fatigued.


The front-page stories in the media quickly reached his hometown, a fishing village on a remote island called Tsoo Loo in Fujian province. The news brought excitement, tears and hope to Liu's entire family, which hadn't heard from him nor had Liu means to contact them for more than 26 months since he left home for America.


Liu's father, a fisherman, had scraped together every penny he could possibly find to fund his son's journey to the U.S. - using his savings, borrowing from families and friends. He paid $30,000 upfront to the smuggler - an astronomical figure for an average Chinese villager, whose annual income was a few hundred dollars at the time.


Liu's wife, two years younger than Liu, is a fisherman's daughter from the same village. The couple had a 2-year-old son when Liu left home for U.S. In Liu's absence, his wife worked day in and day out repairing fishing nets to support the family, caring for the young child and old parents from both sides of the family with a meager income.


The smuggler promised Liu and his family, "We'll get you to America in three months." Liu's voyage to America turned out to be 26 months.


From Tsoo Loo Island to Queens, New York


One afternoon this February, in a small cafe in Philadelphia Chinatown's Galleria, Liu walked me through his long haul from the Tsoo Loo Island in Fujian province China to Queens, New York.


It started on Oct. 10, 1991. Liu was flown to the city of Kunming, capital of Yunan province, located on the far southwest of China bordering Burma, Laos, and Vietnam. He was put into a local motel to wait for more people to join. After 3 weeks of waiting, he was loaded into a military vehicle together with 46 other people, mostly from his home province of Fujian. Fully covered with army green canvas, the vehicle took the passengers on bumpy mountainous road to Yunnan and the Burmese border.


Then they began to hike a forestry mountain to enter Burma. After getting lost in the jungle, a local villager found them and turned them into local police. The police took them into custody and took their money and other valuables. They made phone calls asking local smugglers to bail them out. Liu quickly realized that the local police were part of a lucrative underground business.


The captives escaped police custody while the police were asleep. They ran to the banks of the Malika River at the Sino-Burmese border. They desperately waved hands and shouted to people across the river for help. A boat came and they were taken in by soldiers of Burma's military government.


A Burmese military officer said to them, "We have a profitable business if you are interested. You can get 100,000 Chinese Yuan (equivalent of $15,000) upfront. Then you get a share of the profit every time a transaction is successfully completed." It was a heroin business.


Some passengers were tempted. Liu refused. "I didn't want to do bad things." Liu was a Christian, as his grandmother was. As a devout Christian, she took Liu and other family members with her to a private home every weekend, to a place known as "house church" or "underground church," which operates independently of the Chinese communist government-run churches. Members and leaders of underground churches are main targets of the Chinese regime's religious persecution.


Liu and friends managed to escape from the Burmese military base. They crossed the Burmese-Thai border and arrived in Thailand three months later. They were quickly connected with Thailand-based smugglers who can put people on a boat to America. "Those who have cash on hand can get on the boat almost immediately. People like myself, who did not have money had to wait," Liu said.


After about 6 months of waiting, Liu was finally put on a freighter setting out for America. About 290 people were on the freighter. Most of them were men, in their 20s, 30s, and some 40s from Fujian province.


The passengers elected leaders based on seniority, likeability, and public trust. The elected "officials" were responsible for safeguarding and distributing food, water, and medicines. There was theft of these "public goods" on the freighter, and fights erupted over them. The leaders had guns to maintain order among the passengers.


"There were often fights amidst the endless boredom. Besides lying down, eating, you had nothing to do. Any small dispute or quarrel could turn into a gang-style fight," Liu recalled.


A few months later, passengers were routed to Kenya to change vessels. They ended up staying in Kenya for 8 months waiting for the smuggler to dispatch another freighter to pick them up. Baking in Kenya's scorching sun and drought, the Chinese visitors' only pastime was to play Chinese gambling games.


The Golden VentureFinally, a rusty freighter came. It was the Golden Venture. Some 300 people rushed in and began the sea journey to America. The passengers lived in the lower bottom of the freighter. It was like a dim sum bamboo steamer - human bodies were stacked on top of each other on the wooden beds. Rotten food smell, human waste, body odor all mixed together in the air. Due to malnutrition and lack of hygiene, passengers became pale and weak. Dysentery, diarrhea, vomiting, fever were common among the passengers. Liu remembered a 26-year-old man, a college graduate, died of septicemia.


Among other life-threatening events, a storm at the Cape of Good Hope while on the freighter was most unforgettable to Liu. The confluence of currents from the Atlantic and Indian Oceans create the world's most dangerous sailing waters. Unpredictable and rough swells, stormy tides, and freak waves have claimed countless lives in marine disasters.


When water started creeping into the lower bottom of the vessel, sinking the body of the ship, people were crying. "We were scared to death," Liu said. Amidst the chaos, the captain was seen preparing to abandon the freighter. The leaders quickly surrounded him and held a gun to his back demanding that he remain at his job.


When the Golden Venture survived the storm, passengers were exalted, jumping and dancing with the sound made of bowls and plates using chopsticks. When the ship approached America, they turned off the radar on the freighter. "We feared being discovered by the American border patrol," Liu said. But the precaution as to no avail, U.S. border patrol was prepared to receive them.


Landing in America


Golden Venture passengers were greeted with helicopters, border patrol police and TV camera cars at about 2 a.m. on June 6, 1991.


After being detained by U.S. Immigration for five months, Liu was granted asylum by a Virginia court in Nov. 1991. The asylum program provides protection to qualified individuals who are already in the U.S. or who are seeking entry at a port of entry. Individuals must establish past persecution or a well-founded fear of future persecution by the home country's government.


As the world's largest totalitarian society, under the Chinese Communist Party, China is the largest exporter of political asylums to U.S. Based on a U.S. Department of Homeland Security's 2008 report, more than 20 percent of those who were granted asylum in the U.S. were from China. A distant second place is Columbia.


On the other hand, U.S. Customs and Border Protection data showed China accounts for only 0.2 percent of the total apprehension of illegal immigrants by Department of Homeland Security, far behind Mexico, which accounts for about 88 percent of the total apprehension. The gap can be well attributed to the much higher cost, greater risk, and far longer distance that Chinese have to travel.


It is reported that illegal immigrants from Mexico pay smugglers up to $3,000. According to Liu, the price for Chinese is now $80,000.


When asked if he would want to do it again, knowing the great risks and ordeal that he had gone through, Liu said yes. He enjoys living in the U.S., even though he speaks no more than 50 words of English. (His children read letters, bills, and paperwork for him.)


As a fisherman who didn't have Guan Xi (connections) with local Communist Party officials, Liu said he would never have a chance for a decent life in China.


When he was in China, he worked 14 to 18 hours a day, catching fish and earned about $300 per year. The first month he worked in a Philadelphia Chinatown restaurant, he earned more than $700.


Within five years of his landing in the U.S., he had two small businesses, a restaurant and one dry-cleaner. Liu said as a fisherman without connection, he would never have dreamed owning his own business in China.


He couldn't have had a second child in China. Forced sterilization, having the house torn down, and paying huge fines are part of what Chinese people go through for attempting to have a second child. He and his wife had two more children in the US: a girl and a boy, now 12 and 10 years old, respectively.


Liu is most grateful for his eldest son Michael. Michael lost his hearings to high fever and infection at the age of two when he was in China. The hospital refused to treat him because the family didn't have money to pay for the medical treatment.


"He is 20 and attends college in South New Jersey on a government subsidy. A son of a fisherman, he would never have the chance in China, let alone being deaf," Liu said.


Liu said he often told his countrymen, "I'd pay you $100,000 to go back to China if they complain [about the US]." He said, "I like America. If you are willing to work hard, you can have a happy life." He worked ten plus hours a day, seven days a week in the first several years in Chinatown restaurants, doing everything from dish washing, cooking to delivery. He saved every penny and brought his wife and his son to the U.S. in 1996.


"They all passed the [citizenship] tests and are now American citizens," Liu said happily and proudly, "except me. I failed the test the first time and haven't tried again ... But as long as they are Americans, I am happy."


When speaking about his wife, his Tsoo Loo Island sweetheart, Liu is proud. "She works at the Philadelphia International Airport. It is the Asian Chao restaurant, at Terminal F. You can't miss it. Many people eat there."


Living the American Dream


Stories like Liu's are hardly reported by the state-run media in China.


The Chinese government detests people like Liu, a Chinese with political asylum, and regards them as "sheer shame" that dishonor China and disgrace the Chinese people. The Golden Venture story is no doubt an embarrassment, a PR fiasco that run counter to Chinese government's propaganda: "A promising economy, world's super power, China is in its best shape on human rights and condition throughout the history."


After Golden Ventures news broke, Liu's hometown village began seeing large posters in the streets and public venues. The government sent a clear message: "With pride and honor, you obey the law and can become rich here. With shame and disgust, your being smuggled brings disgrace to the country."


The Chinese government promotes nationalism and wants people to feel proud of China's super power status. Yet it seems hard to reconcile a super power image with miserable stories of lawful citizens willing to take life-threatening risks, prohibitively high cost, grave human consequences and tremendous ordeals just to pursue a life that millions in the West have taken for granted.


"I just want my family to have good life and my kids to have education and a future."


Liu sends his children to Philadelphia Chinatown Church School every weekend. He wants his offspring to inherit his family's tradition in Christian faith and Chinese culture.


"Can you please give me a copy of the newspaper once it's published in English? I want to show to my American neighbors and friends." Speaking little English, Liu hopes to share his life and his American dream with others.


Liu said he was happy to hear what his children told him one day about American history that they studied at school: "America was actually founded by people like dad who was unhappy with his home country and decided to take a boat to come to America."


Then Liu said, "I heard their boat was called the May Flower. Mine was called Golden Venture."

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