For the past six months the world has witnessed a tragedy of epic proportions in Southeast Asia. Hundreds of thousands of people—some uprooted by the continuing warfare in Cambodia and others forcibly expelled by the Communist government of Vietnam—have been thrust from their homelands into a world which seems to have little use for them.
Actually, the refugee tide has been flowing ever since the end of the Vietnam war. In the past four years some 540,000 Indochinese refugees have found new homes abroad—42 percent in China, 39 percent in the United States, and 19 percent in Canada, Australia, France, and West Germany. But the tide has become a flood this year, as the government of Vietnam began ruthlessly uprooting its entire population of ethnic Chinese. As a result, between 300,000 and 400,000 refugees now occupy primitive camps in Thailand, Malaysia, Hong Kong, and Indonesia, and the hard-pressed governments of these poor or overcrowded countries are crying out for help—and a halt in the flow.
What's happening today in Vietnam sounds agonizingly similar to what happened to Jews in Germany during the '30s. Take the case of Haiphong dentist Kooi Peih-Khin, as reported by Los Angeles Times correspondent Linda Mathews:
…the midnight knock on the door came early in March. [The police] pushed their way into Kooi's house and the lieutenant announced, "All Chinese are advised to leave Vietnam. They are not wanted here anymore. For the sake of security, we must have a Vietnam free of Chinese."
"The first time the police came, I didn't know whether to take their threat seriously," Kooi said. "But then they came once a week, and then once a day, to threaten us. It became clear there was no future for us or people like us in Vietnam. It was either leave or die. So we sold all our belongings, gave the police the money they demanded, and we left."
Refugees in Hong Kong report that the mass deportations are directed by Haiphong's Interior and Finance ministries, which have ordered police to collect an "expatriate departure tax" from every refugee. At up to 12 taels of gold apiece ($3,500), Vietnam expects to collect up to $3 billion by the end of the year. Refugees have overtaken coal as the leading Vietnamese "export," says Hong Kong government spokesman David Ford.
The response to this barbarity by some of America's left-wing social critics is tragically revealing. Refusing to sign Joan Baez's open letter condemning the Vietnamese government, radical attorney William Kuntsler declared, "I don't believe in criticizing socialist governments publicly, even if there are human rights violations." Admitting that the Vietnamese are systematically purging the ethnic Chinese, Kunstler defends their actions:
I defend their right to do it. It's fair. Didn't the Chinese just invade Vietnam? Historically the Chinese and the Vietnamese hate each other.…why shouldn't they kick out the Chinese so they'll have more food for their own?…The reality is that the Chinese are a hated minority. And the life of a hated minority is a hard one, anywhere on earth.
Notice what Kunstler is saying here. If there is some "compelling" social factor—cultural differences, a food shortage, historical differences—it's all right for one group to oppress and persecute another. "I defend their right to do it," he says unequivocally. And despite his later attempt to split hairs, this case is not different in principle from Hitler's treatment of Jews, Roosevelt's incarceration of Japanese Americans, or Idi Amin's expulsion of Asian shopkeepers.
As decent people we are repelled when the principle of collectivism is stated in so raw a form. Yet consider some applications of this principle that are closer to home:
• Two laborers are watching television after dinner in their modest one-room apartment in a Southern California city. Without warning officers burst in the door, handcuff them, and confiscate their furniture, belongings, and currency. Allowed to take only their clothes, they are herded onto a bus and sent across the border to Mexico. Their crime? Not possessing the proper papers.
• The operator of a tiny laundry—a one-man business in a run-down section of town, into which he has poured his life savings—receives a notice in the mail. His building has been condemned by the city Redevelopment Agency to make way for a shopping mall. He will receive the "fair market value" of the slum property—though it will be impossible for him to find another location at a price he can afford.
• A woman's car is pulled over by two hippie-looking men waving police badges. When she refuses to give them her address, they arrest her. On searching her purse they find barbiturates and charge her with possession of narcotics. The IRS, accusing her of drug sales, "terminates her taxable year" and files a jeopardy assessment on her alleged drug profits, on the basis of which she supposedly owes $25,000.
These are normal, everyday occurrences in modern America. The fact that we've given them convenient labels—"control of illegal aliens," "eminent domain," "drug enforcement"—and incorporated them into the six o'clock news does nothing to change their fundamental nature. In each case the individual rights of human beings are being violated in order to serve someone's notion of the social good. It's exactly what William Kunstler is championing: might makes right, so long as it's the might of the majority—and so long as their desire is his version of the social good.
The United States was founded on a totally different premise: the idea that there is no "social good" except the preservation of the rights of individuals—every individual. It's all well and good to be horrified by collectivists like the Vietnamese government and William Kunstler who are open about their commitments. But such condemnations ring hollow if they don't extend to the principle that's at stake—that of individualism versus collectivism.
So by all means let us open our borders and our hearts to the boat people. But let us not forget the thousands of boat people already within our borders—all those whose individual rights are daily being sacrificed on the altar of the social good.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Refugees—And Other Boat People".