Is America too Dangerous for Chinese Visitors?

By Jerome A. Cohen

The warning to Chinese tourists recently issued by the Chinese Embassy in Washington is only the latest evidence of Beijing’s concern about gun violence and robbery in America. This worry has marked our exchanges since the start of the Sino-American détente following President Nixon’s February 1972 visit to the Promised Land. In May-June 1972, as part of a three person team from the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) that was invited by the Chinese Academy of Sciences to tour the country for a month, I helped to negotiate a reciprocal visit to the U.S. by representatives of the Academy. Our hosts were happy to discuss a possible trip but understandably concerned about their personal safety in America. They had been reading accounts in the People’s Daily for years about the dangers of gun violence and robbery in our cities and wondered how a relatively small private organization like FAS could provide adequate protection to their group. I assured them that the Chinese news reports were generally slanted and exaggerated and that there was nothing for Chinese visitors to worry about.

In December 1972 I had the pleasure to greet the Academy delegation at Boston airport, its first stop. After a good lunch at its Boston base—that proletarian hostel the Ritz Hotel, I suggested that we launch the visit with a stroll down Boston’s then most elegant street. I knew that the Academy’s interpreter, who had taken good care of us in China, was eager to visit a camera shop and thought we might stop at one during our stroll. The chief of the delegation agreed once I told him there would be no safety issue and that I would honor his request that we spend no time visiting stores to discover “the sugar-coated bullets of the bourgeoisie”. Amazingly, as our group entered the second block of our walk, we suddenly witnessed the only cops and robbers chase I have ever seen, with a uniformed policeman chasing someone while shouting “stop, thief” and brandishing a pistol. Our group was stunned and instinctively huddled together as we watched the policeman chase the suspect into the nearby Bonwit Teller department store. I don’t think my credibility ever recovered, although the rest of the trip went smoothly!