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CHINA'S LOST GENERATION : After Tian An Men, the Best and Brightest Say They Can't Go Home Again

March 25, 1990|JIM MANN | Jim Mann, a correspondent in The Times' Washington bureau, was based in Beijing from 1984 to 1987.

The events of the past year have all but ensured that tens of thousands of Chinese students--the promise of their country's future--will remain in the United States for at least four more years. In that time, they will be increasingly assimilated into American society and alienated from China. Many will decide to remain for a long time--some, perhaps, forever.

IT WASN'T SUPPOSED to work out this way. Twelve years ago, when China first began sending its students to the United States, both sides expected that most of the students would study here for four years or so, then happily rush home. "We'll lose a few, but so what?" Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping told a group of visitors in mid-1978. "We stand to gain so much from all those who will come home that the losses won't matter."

But Deng and other Chinese leaders underestimated how strong the attraction of the United States would be for the students. They also overestimated China's ability to channel American-educated students back into Chinese society. Students who returned home often became disillusioned, both by the lack of suitable jobs in which they could demonstrate their newly acquired skills and by the lack of movement in China toward the sort of political and personal freedoms to which they had become accustomed in the United States.

Few people, in China or elsewhere, could have predicted that the economic reforms initiated by Deng would result in widespread corruption and anger over the distribution of income and privileges, all of which only heightened the desire of young people to leave China. Few could have predicted the magnitude of the exodus to the United States.

The numbers have been staggering. About 80,000 Chinese students and scholars came to this country between 1979 and 1989, according to a study by China specialist Leo A. Orleans, now retired from the Library of Congress. About 43,000 remain in the United States in various academic programs, and an additional 11,000 have managed to change their visa status to become permanent residents. Of the remaining 26,000 who returned to China, most were not students but older scholars who came here on short-term visits of only a few months. By 1988, China had passed Taiwan to become the country with the largest bloc among the 350,000 foreign students here.

Unlike some immigrant groups, which tend to cluster only in certain states, the Chinese students are dispersed throughout the nation. They live in Nebraska, in Arizona, in South Dakota. The largest population is in New York, which has more than 3,100 Chinese students. The next-largest contingent, more than 2,700 students, is in California. Of that group, the largest number, 297, is at USC; 251 are at UCLA, UC Berkeley has 234. Most of the students sponsored by the Chinese government are majoring in the sciences and engineering, the subjects that would be most valuable to China. But many of the students who arrange to come to the United States on their own are pursuing degrees in subjects ranging from business to the humanities.

Cheng Yafei, who three years ago was a Chinese government translator in Beijing, is now studying journalism at Shippensburg State College in Shippensburg, Pa.--a school where, he wryly observes, "a foreign student used to mean someone from Delaware." Cheng, 34, found the school listed in one of the guidebooks to American colleges and universities--books that serve, in cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, as the closest thing to a bible. Cheng applied indiscriminately to dozens of schools in the guidebook--"all the ones from M to Z," he says--and chose Shippensburg because it promised him financial assistance.

No other nation provides students from abroad with as much help with their tuition and living expenses as does the United States. The New York-based Institute for International Education estimates that American colleges and universities are spending about $200 million a year to help the Chinese students with tuition and living expenses.

Despite that commitment, the students often face problems in obtaining inexpensive housing, spending money and transportation, and lead relatively restricted lives even at large universities. Well-paying jobs enable a few to save enough money to buy a car. But for most students, that remains a luxury. Instead, they rely on public transportation or simply stay on campus.

The scene at UCLA's Hardman-Hansen Hall, one of the large dorms run by the University Cooperative Housing Assn., is typical of their initial experiences here. About 50 of the 251 Chinese students at UCLA live in this one complex alone. On any given night, knots of these students can be found wandering to and from dinner, playing Ping-Pong or reading bulletin-board signs that advertise "Chinese Christian Fellowship."

Li Keping* arrived in Southern California last August to start graduate studies in political science. During his first 10 weeks, he never left Westwood because he didn't have the money or means to travel around town.

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