BEIJING — A century ago, when peasants from poverty-stricken villages of South China set out overseas to seek their fortunes in America, the destination for many was a place called "Old Gold Mountain."
That traditional name for San Francisco is used less often today, but the vision it embodies lives on. The dreamers now are mostly city people, primarily the young, the scholarly or the well-connected.
For most, actually going to America remains an impossible dream. But all sorts of people have picked up fairly detailed and generally positive views of the United States from Chinese and foreign media, imported films and new personal links. Images of the wealth and freedom of American society now pose thorny challenges to China's Communist leaders.
"We young people all think the United States is best!" a bright-faced taxi driver enthused. "You can do anything you want, can't you? You can leave any time you like, can't you? We are stuck here. There is nowhere we can go."
Hard-line Chinese officials view such feelings as fundamental threats to the nation--or at least to their own leadership. An ideological campaign against "bourgeois liberalization"--jargon referring to the spread of Western ideas of democracy and capitalism--has been under way ever since the June, 1989, crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations in Beijing.
Ideological indoctrination, combined with tight security measures, may have played a role in bringing surface calm to China. But there is little indication that many people's views have really changed.
Despite new rules that since January have made it harder for Chinese to get permission to study abroad, the visa-application lines outside the U.S. Embassy in Beijing have only grown. Student and scholar visa applications during the first nine months of this year were up 8% over the same period of last year, according to U.S. Embassy statistics. From July, 1989, through June of this year, 12,967 applications for student or scholar visas were filed with the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, up 22% over the previous 12-month period.
This year, the embassy has approved 51% of all student and scholar visa applications. Because some people who are rejected may file a second or third application, the percentage of individuals who eventually get visas is slightly higher.
Of nearly 90,000 students and scholars who have received U.S. visas since 1979, only about 28,000 have returned to China. Partly because of this low return rate, young unmarried students who apply for student visas are routinely suspected of hoping to stay in the United States, and they account for many of the rejections. In order to receive visas, they must provide evidence to show why they would be willing to return to China.
While students and scholars are in the long term probably the most significant category of Chinese going to the United States, large numbers of people also go on business or to visit relatives. From April to September of this year, for example, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing granted 20,002 visas, including 5,404 for students, scholars or their spouses, and 10,828 for business or personal visits.
Knowledge and images of the United States are brought back to China by those who return, while those who stay abroad have the same effect through letters and telephone calls home to family and friends.
Shortwave radio broadcasts in both English and Chinese from the Voice of America and the British Broadcasting Corp. reinforce the messages that reach China through personal contacts.
Television and movies also play roles. When the movie "Breakdance" was shown in China a few years ago, it helped touch off a powerful break-dancing fad among high school youth.
Imported U.S. television shows such as "Hunter" or "Falcon Crest," dubbed into Chinese, beam images of American life into Chinese homes. American television aired here tends to project the overall message that the United States is a prosperous, technologically advanced society, but one that suffers a severe crime problem.
"The general impression of the United States given by television is favorable," commented a government employee nearing retirement age.
All of these factors combine to make American culture and political values into powerful forces affecting Chinese society. Most ordinary people seem to welcome this, but hard-line leaders in the Communist Party are deeply concerned.
The Chinese government's fears were outlined with unusual clarity recently by He Xin, a research fellow at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences who has gained prominence as an outspoken backer of hard-line policies.
"I think that in the past 10 years, America's China policy has been a systematic one which was worked out after careful consideration," he said in comments published by the official weekly magazine Beijing Review.