Wu Fang, a UCLA graduate student, had hoped to return home to China to do research on early childhood education. But the bloody crackdown in Beijing last June changed all that.
"Now, absolutely, I can't go," says Wu, who has participated in pro-democracy rallies and is active in the Chinese student association on campus. Wu, 35, believes that if she goes back, she will be interrogated and perhaps even arrested for expressing her political views in this country.
Even if she is spared arrest, Wu says, she is afraid of being forced to attend "re-education" meetings, which she suspects are more like brainwashing sessions. Friends in China have told her that since June, the meetings have been required for returning students.
Like many of the 40,000 Chinese students in the United States, Wu is disappointed that President George Bush last week vetoed a bill that would have allowed students with J-1 visa status to stay in this country indefinitely. More than 30,000 students have such status, given to visiting scholars who receive financial aid from the Chinese government.
Bush's veto means the students would be required to return to China for two years after completing their studies. Wu, who expects to receive her doctorate in two years, says, "If I have to go back, I'll feel scared."
Other students echo her fears that going back will be unbearable.
"Your mind will be tortured because you will have to say things that go against your conscience," says Ding Jian, 24, a UCLA library science graduate student. Because returning students will be barred from speaking freely, they won't be able to share their ideas about freedom and democracy, he says.
Among those who would be sent back is Xu Youyu, 28, a UCLA mathematics major. Xu says the two-year return requirement has discouraged students from participating in pro-democracy activities here.
"There have been some who feel intimidated," he says, referring to a Nov. 26 rally near Westwood. More than 200 Chinese students from local schools attended, but countless others stayed home because they feared government retribution if they are eventually sent back to China, he says.
Now, after Bush's veto, the students feel even more vulnerable, Xu says. "They feel sold out," he says.
As an alternative to signing the bill, Bush has proposed administrative measures he says would offer the same protection. But Xu, who notes that such measures do not have the force of law and can be revoked at any time, says Chinese students are not assured. "We don't think it's an acceptable compromise," he says.
In China, government rhetoric after the crackdown has been reminiscent of that during the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s, when thousands were persecuted for activities judged counter-revolutionary, Wu says.
The Chinese government's retaliation could extend to a returning student's family, Wu says. Relatives might be denied the chance to take college entrance examinations or be passed over for job promotions, she says.
The Chinese describe the harassment as "wearing little glass shoes," Wu says. The targeted person appears to be living and working freely, but the government pressure is always there, making life as uncomfortable as wearing shoes that pinch, she says.
"Other people can't see it," Wu says of the subtle acts of retaliation. "Only you can feel it."
Despite Bush's veto, Chinese students say they are not defeated yet. "We hope Congress will correct this mistake," says Xu, who is optimistic that when legislators reconvene in January, they will override the President's veto.
Otherwise, Ding says, Chinese students will have to live with an ominous message from the Chinese government: "You will be coming home sooner or later. You better be careful."