Wong Mei-Lan, a 27-year-old teacher living in Saigon, is a citizen of Nationalist China, according to the passport given her in 1974 when Taiwan was promoting its image in Vietnam's Chinese community.
Now, reduced to basic rations and denied a regular job since the communist takeover in 1975, she would like to exercise her rights and move to Taiwan. The Vietnamese have her exist permit ready. But Taiwan, while still advertising itself as a champion of those fleeing communism, has effectively shut the door on her and an estimated 10,000 others holding Taiwan passports in a move one relief official here calls "the height of hypocrisy."
The practically forgotten Saigon Chinese, many of them former merchants now stripped of their livelihood, have appealed to friends and relatives outside Vietnam for help. Relief officials, usually reluctant to talk about sensitive political issues, have now been persuaded to speak out by what they see as one of the greatest injustices to come out of the fall of Saigon and Taiwan's 30-year-old propaganda war with its Communist Chinese rivals."Back during the war the Nationalist Chinese were big in Saigon," said one official who spent some time in Vietnam before 1975. "They had ROC [Republic of China] schools and handed out all these ROC passports. Now they're saying all those papers are worthless."
In the past two years, Taiwan has issued entry permits to 892 Chinese residents of Vietnam. In almost every case the permits have come through appeals from relatives already living in Taiwan, whose 16 million people enjoy one of the healthiest economies in Asia. Relief officials say authorities in the Taiwan capital of Taipei have dragged their feet in arranging flights for even these relatively few Saigon Chinese. The Vietnamese, eager to get rid of people they consider troublesome foreigners, have in contrast presented few problems.
Some Chinese have been told they have seats on the special flights from Saigon to Taipei through Bangkok. They have sold their belongings to ease the journey, and perhaps to pay off whatever bribes Vietnamese officials have extracted. Then they have suffered as the Taipei authorities have delayed the flights, relief officials say.
Taiwan authorities say publicly they can not process the Saigon Chinese applications for entry permits because they are living in a communist country without diplomatic ties to Taiwan. Privately they express the fear that some Chinese from Vietnam might be spies or pose too great an economic burden on the island.
None of this stops the official Taiwan news agency from regularly lamenting the plight of people living in China or Vietnam, or from vigorously protesting when governments like Hong Kong enforce regulations to stop the inflow of illegal refugees from communist neighbors.
"For the sake of humanity," said Taiwan's Free China Relief Association in a recent bulletin, "the Hong Kong government should allow the Chinese freedom seekers to stay in Hong Kong or let them leave for other free countries."
"How can they broadcast complaints on the morality of Hong Kong, when they turn their backs on their own documented citizens," asked one relief official here. "Sure the Chinese in Saigon are angry, but what can they do?" said a relative of Wong, the teacher. The relative asked that Wong's real name not be used in order not to prejudice what slim chance she might still have of leaving Vietnam.
"If the overseas Chinese in Vietnam go to countries in the free world, ROC representatives can process their applications," said an employee of the Overseas Chinese Affairs Commision in Taiwan. No one can legally leave Vietnam without valid entry permits to another country, however, and illegal escape remains difficult. Wong once traveled to the coastal city of Wungtau in an escape attempt. She just missed arrest when her companions were picked up by police while she was packing in her hotel room.
"The entry procedures for the Republic of China happen to be more cautious than those of the United States because we are fighting a war against communism," said the overseas Chinese commission employee.
Relief officials familiar with the business-oriented Chinese of Saigon, and their unhappiness whith living under communism, scoff at suggestions that they pose a security threat.
Taiwan has allowed a private welfare organization in Taipei, the Vietnam-Taiwan Friendship Association, to transmit lists of the few Saigon Chinese it will accept to Hanoi.
The Internationsl Committee of the Red Cross serves as middleman in this process, reconciling the Taiwan list with a list of people Vietnam is willing to let go and chartering the flights from Saigon to Bangkok.
Relief officials say there are enough names cleared now to fill one or two more flights, but Taiwan is again delaying the scheduling of a pickup flight from Taipei.
Francis Amar, head of the Red Cross delegation in Bangkok, declined to comment on charges of Taiwan foot-dragging in the program. He said he did not expect Taipei to liberalize its entry policy but thought there would be another flight "in the not too distant future." He said he could not speculate when that would be.