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

<i> Jim Mann, a correspondent in The Times' Washington bureau, was based in Beijing from 1984 to 1987. </i>

FIVE YEARS AGO, when Wang Ken* arrived in Los Angeles to study engineering at USC, his ambition was to return to China and help build a modern telecommunications system. The son of a Communist Party official in one of China’s largest cities, Wang had decided to dedicate his life to helping China through his mastery of modern technology.

“I was planning on going back. I thought it would be a great life to build an A T & T in China,” says Wang, 27, a slender man whose deep voice and direct speaking style suggest the intellectual self-confidence of a person who has always been at or near the top of his class.

But the massacre at Tian An Men Square last June put a sudden end to Wang’s aspirations. Now, he says bluntly, “The dream is over. I’m not going back, at least not for the next five years.” Neither, he predicts, will many of the other 296 Chinese students at USC. “It would be morally unacceptable for us to return right now and support the Chinese government.”

Sitting in a USC science lab, Wang lays out his revised plans for the future. They do not involve China. He is just finishing his doctorate and applying for engineering jobs at the research labs of major American corporations such as General Electric. Like countless other California residents in defense-related occupations, Wang wonders what the Bush Administration’s defense cutbacks might mean for his own career. He is trying to land a job in the United States that won’t be subject to budget cutting.


“Before last June, the only consideration on whether to go back to China was your own individual training and career development,” Wang says. “But not politics. We felt that China was moving on the right track. Now, things are completely different. And we have all been involved in, you could say, anti-government activities. So we are all scared of going back.”

A decade ago, only a handful of students from the People’s Republic of China lived in the United States. Today, their numbers amount to a human tide. About 43,000 strong, they make up the largest bloc of foreign students on American university campuses. The financial assistance these Chinese students receive each year from U.S. colleges and universities dwarfs American foreign-aid programs to most of the nations of the world. In exchange, Chinese students do so much of the laboratory, teaching and other work on campus that many American universities couldn’t do without them.

Students such as Wang Ken are, of course, among the best and brightest of their generation in China--the most talented young men and women from the most populous country in the world. When China’s Communist Party leadership first decided to start sending them abroad, it believed that the students would absorb modern science and technology, quickly return home and use that knowledge to carry their impoverished nation into the future.

Instead, throughout the past decade, to the increasing consternation of Chinese leaders, the students have stayed on in this country. They have taken whatever actions have been necessary to prolong their stay: switching academic majors, transferring from university to university, extending graduate school. Deciding to remain here was mostly a lifestyle choice; many students were attracted by American freedoms and the better opportunities. After the shooting erupted at Tian An Men Square, however, remaining in the United States also became a matter of political conscience and personal safety.


Now, in the wake of the violent Chinese crackdown and an acrimonious debate between President Bush and his congressional opponents, the United States has granted the students legal protection. Bush vetoed legislation in December but at the same time issued an executive order suspending until 1994 a requirement that the students return home when they finish their studies. His action opened the way for them to begin working in full-time, non-university jobs.

Of course, many of the students wouldn’t have gone back no matter what the Bush Administration and Congress had decided. Some would have sought political asylum in the United States--requests that, given the State Department’s recent condemnation of China’s human-rights policies, would have been difficult to turn down. Other students might have moved from the United States to other countries, nations short of labor and hungry for expertise.

“We might go to Canada or Australia or Singapore,” says Zhao Haiching, 31, a postdoctoral student in biochemistry at Harvard University and one of the leaders of the Federation of Chinese Students, which led the fight for the immigration legislation in Washington. “We would rather not do that because we know that if we scatter ourselves around, we won’t have as much political strength. But really, even if we couldn’t get help from the United States, we still won’t go back to China.”

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.

After more than two months, Li managed to explore beyond the UCLA campus only once. “I took a bus to Santa Monica and Venice and had a nice walk around the beach,” Li recalls. “What does Los Angeles look like? I’ve seen pictures of downtown Los Angeles. I’ve heard there is a Chinatown and a Little Japan. I’ve heard about Monterey Park, too. But I’ve never been to these places.”

Because their visas prohibit them from taking non-academic jobs, the students have become a crucial part of the skilled labor pool at American universities--indeed, some cynics might say, a modern-day, academic version of the Chinese railroad workers imported to this country in the 19th Century. In exchange for the financial aid, the students work as teaching assistants, staff the chemistry labs, run the computers, help out in the alumni offices. In some cases, universities have found that they have become dependent upon Chinese students as a work force. “In university research, one of the motivations for having Chinese students is to get cheap labor,” observes Wang, the USC engineering student. “Americans in the sciences are not willing to waste money in a Ph.D. program. There aren’t a lot more benefits for them in getting their doctorate than if they go without one directly to a job with a corporation.”


A DECADE AGO, Harvard organic chemistry professor William Doering embarked on a personal crusade. Doering realized that as China sought to emerge from the Cultural Revolution and modernize, it would need updated, world-class programs in organic chemistry. In 1980, he paid his way to China and offered to help.

At first, Doering tried training Chinese teachers in short-term seminars, hoping that they could learn enough to pass on to their students. It didn’t work. “They were too old to learn,” he recalls. “They were antediluvian. What they did bore no relation at all to modern college teaching. It was clear you couldn’t do it that way.”

So Doering decided to recruit the most talented young students in China and bring them to the United States for graduate-level courses in organic chemistry. With China’s Ministry of Education, he set up the Chemistry Graduate Program. China paid the students’ airfare to the United States and their first year of living expenses; American universities paid tuition in the first year and the tuition and living expenses thereafter. The program began in 1982, with about 40 Chinese students coming to this country each year.

Doering now calls his crusade, which lasted six years, a failure. In the first class, two students finished their doctorates in record time at Rice University in Houston and returned to China in 1985, eager to help China’s modernization program. They found no teaching jobs in science and no research laboratories available for them. (Under China’s communist system, individuals are assigned to jobs by their work units.)

“They were told, ‘We don’t have a place for you right now, but we’ll start you off teaching English,’ ” Doering says. “Two years later, they were still teaching English. Word about them got back to the other students, and that put a damper on the desire to go home.”

In fact, of about 240 Chinese students who came to the United States under Doering’s program, only one other student has gone back to China--and he was offered a job as a chauffeur. “He’s driving a car, with a Ph.D. in chemistry,” Doering laments.

“It turned out that the older professors in China were damned if they were going to have these kids come back and fade them into oblivion,” Doering says. “The power of the old people in China has got to be cracked.”

Now retired from Harvard, Doering acknowledges that he sometimes wishes that he was in China, a country where older people are treated with great respect. But he is well aware that this same reverence for age inhibits China’s development of modern science. “In the sciences, by and large, you make your mark when you’re young,” he says.

To some officials of the central government in Beijing, the low return rate of the Chinese students was a symptom that something was wrong with the exchange programs, not with China. These officials believed that the students should want to return, even if they were assigned jobs as English teachers or chauffeurs. The students were, after all, Chinese, and waiting in line, bearing frustrations patiently, is part of life in China.

When then-Vice President George Bush visited Beijing in October, 1985, he met Li Peng, then a vice premier and now premier. Afterward, U.S. officials said Li complained bitterly that the Chinese students sent to American universities were staying out of China too long. “They (Chinese leaders) are very nervous about the situation,” a U.S. diplomat in China said at the time. “They’ve been on our backs about it.”

Chinese leaders such as Li wanted the U.S. government to require American universities to force the students’ return. Some of them suggested that the United States should prohibit its universities from allowing Chinese students to extend their studies. American officials countered that the U.S. government couldn’t tell colleges and universities what to do.

So the Chinese launched a propaganda campaign aimed at tarnishing the luster of the United States for young people in China. In early 1986, a Shanghai newspaper published what it claimed was a letter from an unidentified student in the United States. “Life (in America) is hard, but when we write home, we don’t dare say anything about the situation,” the letter said. “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.”

Despite the campaign, students continued coming to America in ever-larger numbers. Throughout the last half of the 1980s, the number of Chinese students in the United States shot up at the rate of about 5,000 a year. It seemed that everyone in China under the age of 40 wanted to come. Even some who returned from study in the United States turned around and came back again.

One of them was Yang Weilin*. Yang traveled to Washington in the early 1980s with one of the first groups of Chinese exchange students. Back then, Yang was in her 20s and painfully shy. She wouldn’t talk about Chinese politics under any circumstances; she found it difficult enough to talk about herself. Yang approached American life with the patient endurance she had learned in China. Once, during one of Washington’s paralyzing snowstorms, she waited on the street for more than four hours to take a bus home from campus, a 15-minute ride.

Yang returned to China in the mid-1980s. When some of her American friends visited, she seemed less than thrilled to be home. She spoke as little as possible about her job, which was at a local teaching institute. Within less than a year, she came back to the United States for doctoral study.

“When people began to return to China, they saw they weren’t being given the jobs they expected,” Yang explains. “China’s reforms were at the stage where you needed a certain political change in order to make them work, and back in China, they were holding things very tight. Now, I know I can’t return, not for many years.”

Her outspokenness and willingness to talk about politics these days are surprising, but then, Yang has changed during her two long stays in America.

She recently moved back to Washington after spending three years studying in a small town in the East. While preparing her doctoral dissertation, she is working as a full-time researcher. Married now to her boyfriend from China, she lives in a rooming house, and they drive a new Ford Taurus station wagon.

Yang has begun to lose contact with contemporaries from China, many of whom have drifted away to other cities. She has begun to lose track of the written language. “I forget things,” Yang acknowledges. “When I write letters home, every once in a while I say to myself, ‘What is the (Chinese) character for that?’ And I actually have to go to the dictionary and look it up.”

IN A YELLOW cinder-block classroom on the second floor of the Math-Sciences Building, about 100 of UCLA’s Chinese students have gathered. Dressed in the collegiate uniform of jeans, T-shirts and sneakers, they are grilling Carl Shusterman for information that could affect the rest of their lives.

Shusterman, an earnest, young Los Angeles immigration lawyer, has been invited by university officials to discuss how fast-changing visa regulations will affect Chinese students in the United States. His presentation, like his talks at USC and Caltech, is a public service; it also is a low-key way of advertising his law firm, Barst, Mukamal & Shusterman, whose blue-and-brown brochures he has placed prominently on a table in the front of the lecture hall.

“Make sure you get one of the 60 lawyers certified by the State Bar in immigration law,” Shusterman says. “I have a list at my office if you want to see it. . . . Make sure you get a lawyer who speaks Chinese or has someone at his office who does. It’s one thing to do your math (in the English language), but this is your whole life. . . . Look up your lawyer in Martindale-Hubbell, the lawyers’ guide. Let me spell it for you. That’s M-a-r-t-i-n-d-a-l-e.”

In China, large, organized gatherings such as this one usually inspire mass boredom, with the listeners reading newspapers, talking to one another, even sleeping. But these students hang on Shusterman’s every word, searching for any clue, any hint, that will enable them to arrange their futures in the United States. They ask questions and jot the answers in their notebooks. Could they drop out of school to work? How could they get approval for a specific job? Could they fill out the forms themselves to change their visas?

“Immigration is definitely not a science. Immigration is an art,” Shusterman tells the students. Some of them write that down in their notebooks, too.

Visas have been the constant worry, the continuing obsession, of the students--especially those who want to become permanent residents. During the past decade, they often have succeeded in delaying their return to China. Still, the U.S. immigration laws remained the same: At the end of a student’s academic stay (and an 18-month grace period for additional training), he was legally obliged to leave.

Chinese students were exempt from this requirement only if they came here on “F-1" visas, meaning that their studies were being financed privately, without help from the Chinese government. But more than 60% of Chinese students came here on “J-1" visas, issued to those who are sponsored by a Chinese institution or organization. Even if the Chinese government paid only the cost of a student’s plane ticket to the United States, authorities in China usually required the student to obtain a visa saying that he was government-sponsored. That was China’s way of ensuring that a student would eventually be required by U.S. law to go home. And the students usually went along, accepting any visa they could get as part of the price they had to pay for permission to study abroad.

Subai Guan, 27, was one of those who went along. She came to the United States in 1986 to pursue a master’s degree in broadcast journalism at USC, forced by the government to enter the country under a J-1 visa. Officials, Guan says, “thought I wouldn’t come back after studying journalism here.” The irony, she says, is that “I always thought I would go back in two or three years, after I finished my studies. But now I can’t because I was very active in the democracy movement. I will surely be thrown into jail if I go back to China.”

Once in the United States, Chinese students found that a J-1 visa barred them from landing permanent jobs. They could work at universities as laboratory aides or research assistants. Or they could take their additional 18 months of training in a field related to their studies, which Guan has done as an editorial assistant at KNBC News. Sometimes they could find employment in low-skilled jobs if their bosses didn’t ask too many questions. But they couldn’t enter the American corporate world as permanent, full-time employees. “When I sent out resumes, a lot of companies wanted to hire me,” says USC student Wang Ken of his prolonged job search before Chinese students won legal protection and the permission to seek jobs outside their universities. “But when they found out I had a J-1 visa, that was it. They wouldn’t do it.”

The June crackdown in China quickly created a new political constituency in Congress in favor of allowing Chinese students with J-1 visas to stay in the United States indefinitely. By November, legislation to help the Chinese students was sailing toward enactment. It was only then that the Bush Administration began quietly lobbying to kill the measure.

Behind the scenes, the Administration criticized the legislation, but there was one argument that appeared to count more than all the others. In private conversations, officials repeatedly argued that the students should be encouraged to go home because they would serve as agents of pro-American influence in China in the future. It was in the United States’ interest for the students to wind up in China, not in the United States, officials contended. The assumptions of the Bush Administration, however, were open to question. Chinese officials don’t always sympathize with the country in which they have been educated. Some of the most pro-Soviet officials in the current Chinese leadership happen to have been educated in the Soviet Union in the 1950s, but some of the most anti-Soviet officials in China also had been educated in Moscow or Leningrad. Similarly, a couple of the most anti-American officials in China were people who had studied in this country during the disillusioning late 1940s and early 1950s, when the United States clung to its support of the faltering Nationalist regime of Chiang Kai-shek.

Was it possible that the Administration was inadvertently producing a new generation of Chinese students who were American-educated but disenchanted with the U.S. government? Zhao Haiching, one of the Chinese student leaders at Harvard, thinks so.

“I see history being repeated. In the late 1940s, Mao Tse-tung sought help from the United States. But the United States supported Chiang Kai-shek, and so Mao was forced to rely on Stalin,” Zhao says. “We see the same sort of thing happening now. . . . I see the danger that if we, the younger generation in China, cannot get help from the United States when we need it, we may seek the same help from (Soviet leader Mikhail S.) Gorbachev.”

WILL THE CHINESE students ever return to China?

Some American educators believe that the Chinese will eventually go home, just as other foreign students in this country have. “This is not a problem unique to China,” says Peggy Blumenthal of the Institute for International Education. “It’s common to all developing countries. People don’t know when they want to return home. And when they do go back depends on the economic and political conditions inside their country. We have seen this phenomenon in Taiwan and in South Korea, as well.”

Over the past decade, even some government officials in China have argued that the regime should not worry so much about the students’ staying in America. Taking the long view, these officials believe that the students will return someday and that their skills, expertise and money will eventually help the country. That reasoning helps explain why, in recent years, despite its frequent complaints about overstaying students, the Chinese government has continued to allow its students to come here.

It is unclear now whether the regime’s past tolerance will continue. In February, China began requiring college graduates to work there for five years before becoming eligible for U.S. study. Students who want to travel abroad sooner must repay the government the costs of their education in China. It is too soon to say how strictly these new rules will be enforced or whether young Chinese will be able to find some way around them.

There also is an important historical precedent that many Chinese students and officials keep in mind. At the beginning of the 1950s, after Mao and his guerrilla army succeeded in toppling Chiang Kai-shek, many students who had been in the United States for years rushed back home. For quite a few American-educated students, the fall of the corrupt Nationalist regime provided a cause for rejoicing, and the new Communist government offered a chance for opportunities, an outlet for the students’ patriotism and idealism. During the 1950s and early 1960s, China developed its nuclear-weapons program with the help of American-trained scientists who had gone home after 1949.

No one can say for sure that a future political change, the fall of another dynasty, won’t prompt many of the students here to rush home. Anything is possible in China, and no one can rule out the prospect that some day, the Goddess of Democracy may once again stand symbolic guard over Tian An Men Square.

Many of the students who have been in this country for several years have put down roots and become increasingly Americanized. But some of them, like Tang Yiming, are still willing to entertain thoughts of going back to China.

When Tang, 48, first came to New York City from the city of Wuhan in central China in 1981, he knew only a few hundred words of English and a bit of grammar. He couldn’t manage a single, coherent sentence. It took him 18 months merely to get his language proficiency up to the level necessary to enter Columbia University’s graduate school in East Asian studies.

Tang thought he would complete his Ph.D. within three years--an expectation that, he now ruefully admits, illustrated his ignorance of the glacial pace of graduate school life in America. Nine years later, after arranging for his wife and three children to join him in this country, Tang is still working on his doctoral dissertation in East Asian studies. He now has his “green card,” meaning he is a permanent resident of the United States. He lives in a cramped Manhattan apartment where the one luxury is a telephone-answering machine. Two of his children attend American universities: one at Lehman City College in the Bronx, another at New York State University at StonyBrook.

During a visit to New York several years ago, the president of Wuhan University, Tang’s alma mater in China, urged him to go back home. Tang didn’t heed the call, but his patriotism remains strong.

“In Chinese culture,” he says, “there is a pull to do something for your country, for your people. There is always something to attract Chinese people to go back. I don’t know why.

“You always feel that if you immigrate into the United States, you cannot be in the mainstream of this country,” he says. “Even myself, I have already stayed in this country for (many) years. But if China had a big change, if they had a society with freedom and democracy, I would go back and do something for my people.

“If I stay here, I can be a professor and make a good salary, not a bad life,” Tang concludes. “But I would still feel something is missing in my life.”

Other students, such as Li Ming*, are positive they won’t go home. The poignant story of Li’s family illustrates the historic sweep, the decades-long cycles of hope and disappointment, involved in the Chinese students’ migration to this country.

A young resident of Beijing, Li was the son of a Chinese couple educated in the United States. His mother had attended UC Berkeley in the late 1940s, and his father had studied at a school in the Midwest. In December, 1950, the two hurried back to China just before the United States--then fighting against Chinese troops in the Korean War--imposed new rules that prohibited Chinese scientists and engineers in the United States from returning home. Li’s mother didn’t want to return to China, but his father, fired by patriotism, wanted to help rebuild their country.

From the time she returned to Beijing, Li’s mother was unhappy. On several occasions, she told Li and his classmates that going home was the biggest mistake she had ever made. Under the new regime, she said, educated people were not allowed to think. They were always obliged to follow the Communist Party’s line.

In 1986, Li obtained permission to study in the United States. Before he left, his mother told him not to return, not to repeat her mistake.

Only a few months after Li arrived in America, his mother was found to have cancer. Li’s friends wanted to notify him in the United States that his mother did not have long to live. But Li’s mother was adamant--no one should tell Li, she insisted. Li’s friends reluctantly kept the secret, and his mother died before he ever learned of her illness. “She was afraid I might come back to see her,” he says, “and that I would not go back to the United States.”

Li remains in the United States today, studying communications at an East Coast university, living out his mother’s dreams. And, during the past two years, Li’s father, who 40 years ago rushed back to help rebuild China, has sent messages that his son should plan to make his life in the United States.

Says Li: “My father told me I would have a better fortune here.”

* Because some students in this story fear reprisals against them or their families in China, they have asked that their real names not be used.