Democracy Begins at Home

Norman Matloff

Asian Week, July 14, 1995

Last week Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi criticized the Chinese government for its June 19 detention of exiled dissident Harry Wu, saying that international law guarantees the right to petition one's government. Sadly, that right does not always exist in Pelosi's own back yard, as Bay Area aerospace engineer Raymond Luh has bitterly learned.

Dr. Luh, an immigrant from Taiwan, gave up his legal battle a few months ago to overturn his 1992 firing by NASA Ames in Mountain View. Luh's firing appears to be the result of his exercising his right to free speech on the Internet---ironically, in which he opposed Pelosi's bills which would revoke China's Most Favored Nation (MFN) trade status if China failed to improve its human rights record.

NASA claims that Luh was terminated because his use of government computers to participate in an Internet electronic discussion group on China was unrelated to his work. Yet, in internal government documents obtained by Luh via the Freedom of Information Act, NASA admitted that it is common for employees to participate in nonwork-related Internet groups; it is a form of recreation (at no cost to NASA), no different from NASA's tennis courts. Indeed, NASA continues to make those groups freely accessible on NASA computers to this day.

NASA also claims that Luh's Usenet usage was excessive, cutting into his work time---a highly disingenuous claim to make, in view of the fact that not long before firing Luh, NASA had presented him with a prestigious cash award for top performance.

Instead, the real reason Luh was fired appears to be that NASA did not like Luh's Internet articles opposing Pelosi's MFN bills. NASA documents refer repeatedly to Luh's "support" of China in those articles.

Yet Luh's point of view was thoroughly mainstream. Then-president George Bush and now Bill Clinton feel that revoking China's MFN status would only strengthen the hardliners in the Chinese government, rather than achieving improvements in human rights. Nearly 80 percent of the Bay Area Chinese-Americans polled in Sing Tao Daily, a newspaper popular among immigrants from Hong Kong and China, also opposed Pelosi's bills. Polls of students from China studying in the U.S. showed that they too disagreed with Pelosi.

Back in the McCarthy era of the 1950s, San Francisco Chinatown newspaper editor Maurice Chuck was harassed by the FBI and nearly deported, because of his editorials which the FBI considered sympathetic to the Chinese government. Luh has now become a Maurice Chuck of the 1990s, and his firing raises concerns about job security and freedom of speech for any Chinese-American holding a government job.

NASA did not claim that Luh was in any way a security risk. Yet it explicitly made negative references to Luh's Chinese ancestry in its documents supporting his termination. Some such comments were even tragicomic in nature, such as one which darkly reported that Luh had been caught possessing "a paper with Chinese writing on it," apparently an insidious act in the eyes of NASA.

Interestingly, Pelosi's staunch ally, the controversial Independent Federation of Chinese Students and Scholars (IFCSS), stood by idly when Luh's plight was brought up at several different times on the Internet. When Connie Chung broadcast a report last year that hinted that many Chinese students could be spies, the IFCSS mobilized, flooding CBS and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights with protest faxes and phone calls. But they did not lift a finger for Luh.

Luh turned to a politically well-connected Asian-American law firm for redress. After reading the government documents on the case, an attorney for the firm told Luh that it was a clear instance of both racial discrimination and violation of his right to free speech, and agreed to take the case. Some time later, though, Luh suddenly received a registered letter from the firm, saying they were withdrawing from the case; no explanation was given.

Exasperated, Luh turned for help to a prominent Asian-American congressman. Yet the response there was chilly, even hinting that Luh deserved to be fired.

One of the putative attractions America has for immigrants is our democratic system. But this claim has a hollow ring for Ray Luh.


Norman Matloff teaches at the University of California at Davis. He also writes about immigrant and minority issues, and has been active in the Chinese immigrant community for 20 years.