Just after President Bush vetoed a bill Thursday that would have enabled tens of thousands of mainland Chinese students to stay in this country, a message from Caltech flashed across a computer network that links university students around the country:
"Bush has vetoed the bill. He not only shut off our hope, but also did it in the worst way. Any Chinese student should be angry if he still has blood left."
A few minutes later, another message flashed across the same network: "We have won! Don't lose sleep!"
In a few hours, a third message was transmitted: "The bill is vetoed finally. . . . So what?"
The disparity in tone of the messages is a measure of the confusion and uncertainty that the Bush veto has sparked among mainland Chinese students in this country. Although Bush refused to sign the bill, saying he was opposed to "congressional micromanagement of foreign policy," he announced as a compromise that he would grant the students many of the same protections the bill offered. Specifically, students would no longer be required to return to China after completing their studies.
Therein lies the confusion. For some, the protection offered by the President's move is a welcome relief. But others worry that the lack of ironclad legislation leaves their future just as cloudy as before.
"If I think about just myself, I am actually pretty happy," said Caltech graduate student Liu Gang, who would have had to return home next year. "I am grateful he didn't just veto the bill."
But, he added, unlike a law, Bush's promise could be revoked at any time. "All these things are promises," Gang said. "It's better than nothing, but how long will it last? What if he changes his mind?"
Wang Youqi, another Caltech graduate student, said that many Chinese students, despite the protection of Bush's administrative action, are outraged at the veto. The perception among many students, he said, is that Bush killed the legislation because of pressure from the Chinese government to return the students.
"It's very scary," Wang said. "Students here have been intimidated by the mainland Chinese government. Now they see the Bush Administration intimidated too."
"If he really wanted to help us, why didn't he just sign the bill?" Wang asked. "It's that simple. Now it's like something hanging over your head, and you don't know when it's going to drop."
Feng Hui, a graduate student at UCLA, said the veto has already had a chilling effect on the efforts of Chinese students in the United States to support the democracy movement in China. He said one woman has already resigned from a UCLA Chinese student group because of fear that she may have to return to China when her studies are over.
"Everyone is going to be silent," he said. "Who will speak out when they don't know what will happen in the future?"
There are now about 40,000 Chinese students and scholars in the United States, the largest group of students from any foreign country. About 75% have come with visas that require them to return home for at least two years after their studies are completed.
Liu Yongchuan, the president of the Independent Federation of Chinese Students and Scholars, the national student group that spearheaded the lobbying effort to pass the bill, said only legislation will be able to provide a real guarantee of protection for these Chinese students.
Liu said he was disappointed at the veto of the bill but is confident that Congress will either override Bush's veto or send another version to the President in the next session.
"We'll try it again," Liu said. "We have no confidence in Bush now. He always wants to satisfy the Chinese government."
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), was unanimously approved in the House and passed by voice vote in the Senate. And in addition to messages of support from other cities, Los Angeles City Councilman Michael Woo on Friday sent telegrams to congressional leaders condemning Bush's veto and urging legislators to take up the issue again.