Life in U.S. Portrayed as Difficult : China Tries to Cut Loss of Students Staying Abroad

Times Staff Writer

An official Shanghai newspaper published an extraordinary account recently of the drudgery and poverty experienced by the thousands of Chinese students who have gone on their own, without government sponsorship, to the United States.

According to the story, which appeared in the World Economic Herald, these students spend most of their time in low-paying menial jobs, are subjected to racial discrimination by Americans and are treated as second-class citizens by Chinese Embassy and consular officials.

“Life is hard, but when we write home, we don’t dare say anything about the situation,” the newspaper quoted an unidentified student as saying. “Oh, but the color photos. When we send color photos home, we’re always wearing Western suits, ties, standing next to somebody’s Western home and car. Wonderful. When my family sees them, they think I lead a beautiful life here. I hope you’ll tell the real story. After I finish studying here, I will definitely go back.”

The Shanghai article was followed by another a few days later in the cultural newspaper Wen Hui Bao, describing how a young Chinese woman trying to settle in the United States had been stripped and interrogated by the FBI and, later on, raped by exploitative men.


These accounts of life in the United States are part of a broad campaign by the Chinese government aimed at dampening the ardor of students to go abroad and also at persuading those overseas to come home.

Over the last eight years, China has sent at least 37,000 students to universities overseas. By far the largest number, about 15,000, are in the United States. Over the past year, these students have increasingly become the subject of high-level discussions between the Chinese and U.S. governments.

According to U.S. officials, when Vice President George Bush visited Peking last October, Chinese Vice Premier Li Peng voiced concern that Chinese students seemed to be staying too long in the United States. Chinese officials reportedly brought the matter up in a meeting with former Sen. Charles H. Percy, who now represents the Institute of International Education.

“They are very nervous about the situation,” a U.S. diplomat here said. “They’ve been on our backs about it.”


New Rules Developed

The Chinese regime has also been moving toward new restrictions on the number of students permitted to go abroad. Several Chinese sources say they have been told by their schools or work units of new rules requiring that an individual must stay in China for four years after getting an undergraduate degree or two years after completion of graduate studies before he is permitted to study overseas.

China has never confirmed that these new regulations have taken effect, but an official of the Ministry of Education acknowledged that rules of this sort are under study. Another Chinese official familiar with education policy said these restrictions have been adopted for some fields of study. China does not want to limit advanced training overseas for science and technology courses that are not available in China.

China opened the way in 1978 for students to begin going overseas in substantial numbers. At the time, Chinese universities were swamped with requests for admission to their own programs from people who had missed out on educational opportunities during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution. The Chinese universities had neither the space for all these would-be students nor the programs to train students adequately.


Some Pay Own Way

Some of the Chinese students went overseas with the sponsorship and financial backing of the government, but many others were permitted to study abroad after arranging their own financing. These self-financed students, or zifei as they are called, rely on the financial support of family and friends and whatever money they can raise through scholarships or part-time jobs.

From the outset, the policy of sending students overseas bore the personal stamp of Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, who in 1920 went to France to study but spent most of his time abroad in political organizing.

“Any nation or country must learn from the strong points of other nations and countries,” Deng said in 1978. " . . .We must actively develop international academic exchanges and step up our friendly contacts with scientific circles of other countries.”


Deng and other Chinese leaders foresaw that some students would not return, but they originally viewed this problem as a price that would have to be paid in order to get well-trained personnel who could help develop the country.

In strictly economic terms, the independently financed students seemed like a particular bargain. The Chinese government was paying nothing for their education but would benefit from the skills of those students who eventually decided to come back.

Policy Controversial

Yet the policy of opening doors for overseas study has been controversial almost from the outset. “It’s been an increasing worry for them at least since 1980,” a Western analyst here said recently.


Critics complained that children of high-ranking Communist Party officials were given preference for overseas study, that students graduating from Chinese universities were turning down job assignments here in favor of study abroad and that too few of the students who went overseas were returning home.

In 1982, China clamped down for the first time. The regime imposed a two-year work requirement on students applying to go abroad with private financing.

At that time, a survey of privately financed Chinese students at American universities found that approximately 85% of them would probably not return to China. The proportion was virtually identical to that for Taiwan, which has for years had difficulty persuading its students to return from the United States.

Political Use Feared


China also began voicing fears that foreign governments might be using educational programs for political purposes. A Chinese news magazine complained in 1982 that Chinese students overseas were the target of “foreign reactionaries . . . (who) make a long-term investment in them in order to foster their influence in China.”

Such anxiety about foreign influence can still be heard here. Indeed, one Chinese source reported recently that an important, little-publicized part of the current Chinese Communist Party drive against corruption and privilege is a crackdown on young Chinese who supposedly divulge state secrets while they are overseas.

“They think cadres’ kids in the U.S. are passing on things to the CIA,” this source said.

Chinese leaders also worry about attempts by Taiwan to curry favor with young people from the mainland while they are abroad.


Worried at Return Rate

The recent Chinese concern appears to be prompted less by fear of political subversion, however, than by the simple fact that, as time goes on, it is becoming increasingly clear how few of the students overseas are coming home.

In the early 1980s, the low return rate could be explained on grounds that it was too early to say for sure whether Chinese students would try to stay permanently overseas. Courses of study, particularly for advanced degrees, can last for an extended period of time.

But it has now been eight years since the educational door was opened. Chances are that those students who have already been overseas for six years or more are not planning to return to China, or at the very least are not eager to do so.


According to U.S. estimates, 60% of the Chinese students in the United States are privately financed--a figure far higher than that for other countries.

Western diplomats here say it is clear that most of the students are coming from Peking, Shanghai and other cities and areas on the coast rather than from the interior. Beyond that, they say, very little is known about the students--exactly how many there are, what they are studying or where they are attending school. “We just don’t have figures,” a U.S. official here said.

The U.S. government has commissioned a detailed study of the Chinese students at American universities.

U.S. consular officials in China have for years been granting visas only to those Chinese students who they believe will return to China, and turning down those who seem likely to want to stay on permanently in the United States.


But their judgment is not foolproof, and many young Chinese have learned how to beat the system. “Before I went for my interview at the American Consulate, I cut my hair short, got out plain old clothes and practiced sounding like a good party official, talking about wanting to contribute to the Four Modernizations,” a woman from Shanghai recalled. She was able to get a visa.

Lure Has Proved Strong

The Chinese regime may well have underestimated just how strong would be the lure of study abroad, and how many Chinese students would be able to manage to find scholarships or money to go overseas without government sponsorship.

Also, China’s sense of nationalistic pride seems to be much stronger now than when it was emerging from isolation eight years ago.


“Is a person educated outside China any better than a person educated in China?” the People’s Daily asked in a recent article. " . . . Whether a person is a graduate of Harvard University or West Point, whether a person is a Peking University or Qinghua graduate or a graduate of a small Chinese university, all can get on the scales. We can see how much they weigh and then decide how to use them.”

A few articles in the Chinese press have raised serious questions about how students coming home from advanced training abroad are treated here.

There have been suggestions that returning students should be given better jobs, more responsibility and better research facilities. China has been working on setting up special centers at which returning students with advanced training in the sciences can get special help and government support to carry on their work.

For the most part, however, the articles hammer away at the darker side of life in the United States.


“It’s true that when people first come to the United States they’re fascinated by the skyscrapers, supermarkets, parks, Western houses and endless streams of cars,” the article in the World Economic Herald said. “But after living (in the United States) for a while, it becomes normal. Cheap food like milk, bread and Coca-Cola can’t fill up a person’s spiritual life.”