UNDER THE PRESSURE of daily deadlines and the chaos of breaking news, newspapers can get things wrong. That's as true of the opinion section as of any other. Every paper sometimes has a bad editorial day.
But yesterday, the Boston Globe had a ghastly editorial day.
Many newspapers wrestled this week with the saga of the Golden Venture, the steamer carrying nearly 300 Chinese refugees that ran aground off New York Sunday morning. What does one say about men and women so desperate to live in freedom that they would undertake a voyage of 17,000 miles in unspeakable conditions -- only to end up swimming for their lives through frigid, six-foot breakers?
In an editorial today, the Herald uses this traumatic story to make a point about immigration policy: People willing to pay so excruciating a price in order to come to America and work are precisely the kind of people we should welcome with open arms.
But to The Boston Globe, the agony of these 300 human beings was beside the point. "Compelling as their plight might at first appear," the Globe's lead editorial yesterday said dismissively, "it obscures complex realities."
"The reality is that China . . . remains a poor, overpopulated country. As in other poor, overpopulated countries, there is too little land for peasants and too few good jobs for workers. Moreover, the would-be immigrants have been sold a bill of goods about America."
The Globe's editorial writer has been sold a bill of goods about China.
"Overpopulated?" China's population density is 306 people per square mile. So is Denmark's. Where are the boats filled with desperate Danish refugees? Come to think of it, where are the boat people fleeing Britain, where the population density is 601 per square mile?
But the Globe is not about to be distracted by facts and figures. An "irrational loophole" in immigration law, it complains, "allows almost anyone from China to say he or she is fleeing political persecution." It tells President Clinton not to let immigrants "obtain asylum in the United States by claiming they were fleeing Beijing's policy of population control." And it praises "China's harsh efforts to limit population growth" as "represent[ing] a rare governmental effort to solve the long-term problem of global demographic imbalances . . ."
From Freedom House's annual human-rights survey, here is a précis of that "rare governmental effort" the Globe so admires:
Beijing's 'one-child' policy is enforced by birth-control officials with the help of neighborhood committees. There are 13 million volunteers in the monitoring system for pregnancies. If a woman who has already exceeded her limit becomes pregnant, she is harassed and threatened until she agrees to an abortion. In urban areas it is virtually impossible to obtain permission to have a second child. . .
There have been many cases of physical compulsion to abort or sterilize. . . . Traditionally, the rural Chinese have considered girls less valuable than boys, because men . . . live at home after marriage, thereby being in a position to take care of the aged parents, while girls simply go off to their husband's household. Five percent of all infant girls (one-half million) are unaccounted for by the time they should be five years old. Western analysts believe that many are drowned.
In 1983, the scholar Steven Mosher, who had lived in a Chinese village, first called the West's attention to the slaughter of baby girls in China. "The wave of infanticide sweeping China," he wrote, "is a direct consequence of a . . . brutal and inhumane policy of population control."
Who'd have thought that a decade later, the Globe would speak warmly of that policy, while feeling only coldness for the miserable men and women escaping it?
(Jeff Jacoby is the Boston Herald's chief editorial writer).
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