Chinese puzzle: who gets to study in US

Question: What do Deng Zhifang, Huang Bing, and Bo Jieying have in common?

Answer: All are children of high Chinese officials, and all are enjoying what in China is a scarce and highly sought after privilege - education in the United States.

Deng Zhifang is the son of China's most powerful man, Deng Xiaoping. He and his wife live in a university apartment while he studies for a PhD in physics at the University of Rochester, N.Y.

Huang Bing is the son of China's foreign minister, Huang Hua. He is an undergraduate student studying liberal arts at Harvard University.

Bo Jieying is studying for a PhD in biology at Brandeis University, Waltham, Mass. She is the daughter of Bo Yibo, former chief of China's State Economic Commission and a member of the Communist Party's recently set up Advisory Commission.

These three are among what most experts agree is a noteworthy number of children of high Chinese officials with permission to study outside China. Some even are supported by the government.

The entrance of such special students is just one facet of an influx that has resulted in nearly 9,000 Chinese students in the US this year. Selecting them, as well as the proper areas for them to study, has sometimes been difficult for Chinese authorities. Still the number of students in the US has grown by 2,000 to 3,000 a year since 1978, when only 200 arrived.

The US State Department and private educational organizations that keep track of arriving students have difficulty establishing how many are related to high officials. The number has been sufficient to cause difficulties for China. To combat any impression of special favor, the government published last spring a directive barring any more children of high-level officials from overseas study.

Nepotism is a sensitive issue in Communist China, where rigid bureaucracies sometimes slow progress through regular channels. The use of special family, financial, or personal connections has been a common method of ''going through the back door.''

Students like Deng, Huang, and Bo appear to be unaffected by the current crackdown. So many children of high-level officials had already left to study overseas that an American analyst compares the move to ''closing the barn door after all the horses have run out.'' There are likely to be ways of getting around the new rules, he adds.

The scramble to gain Chinese government sponsorship for study abroad is understandable because many of the winners are expected to be promoted. As a US official put it, they are ''the cream of the crop'' - either mid-level technocrats or the most successful and most talented of recent Chinese university graduates.

The US is training more Chinese students than any other Western nation. More than 4,000 (about one-half) of the Chinese students in the US are paid for by the Chinese government. That's about the same number sent under Chinese sponsorship to study elsewhere, such as in Western Europe and Japan.

Many of the others in the US are supported by their own families, often overseas Chinese living in Asia or the United States. Some may be at least partly supported by American schools.

Most of the first to come were older, less impressionable persons who had received their undergraduate education before the Communists won power in 1949. Some were younger graduates who had been trained before the Cultural Revolution closed down China's universities in the late 1960s. They tended to have deep family and professional ties in China, rendering them less likely to defect.

But in the years immediately ahead, students who entered and graduated from Chinese colleges after they were reopened in 1978 are expected to make up a bigger proportion of Chinese students in the US.

This younger generation of students is expected to be more impressionable and more likely to defect, since professional, political, and personal ties with China are fewer.

So far no officially sponsored Chinese student or scholar has been granted political asylum in the US. There is very little opportunity for them to stay on in some other capacity, since their J-1 visas for exchange visitors are very difficult to change.

The number of privately funded students from China who have changed their visas to stay on runs into several hundred over the last three to four years, according to a State Department official.

China's need for development skills is considered great enough for Peking to take some risks. But China wants to minimize defections. One measure that could help is a directive, announced last spring, that requires any Chinese university graduate to work in China for two years before studying abroad.

This would give practical experience, test political reliability, and presumably allow authorities a better opportunity to judge the prospects for defection. But some China specialists suggest that, like many other Chinese regulations, this may be interpreted differently according to circumstances, thus releasing some students from the requirement.

As another precaution, passports are issued to students only after careful consideration of the consequences if the student defects. So it is hardly surprising that a number of Chinese students, scholars, or professionals have found their passports ''delayed'' and been unable to accept American fellowships. When a passport is granted, it sometimes means a decision that the person in question is deemed ''expendable'' in terms of the consequences of defection, an American scholar suggests.

Under China's current political climate a student who returns to China can expect better opportunities for advancement. But if he ''sticks out too much'' and acts too differently from his colleagues, he could have difficulties, an American expert notes. Many Chinese are aware that in the past those with overseas contacts have been criticized or purged from their positions.

So far post-1978 students in the United States are few. But some of the new group have arrived for graduate study in physics at the the University of Rochester in New York. ''They are well-trained with high standards,'' says a professor who preferred not to be identified.

Since 1978 China's education abroad program has concentrated on study of the sciences as most important for building the country's economic modernization and military power. Most of those who came to the US to study other subjects were privately funded.

American universities sometimes find that when they offer a full liberal arts fellowship to a Chinese student, Chinese authorities bar the student from accepting. An American educator says China may have concluded mistakenly that rejected humanities money would be rechanneled for science fellowships.

A Chinese exchange student at Harvard had another explanation. Because the Cultural Revolution closed China's universities, ''They cannot come because they are behind in language and background,'' he says.

A Harvard University history professor makes a similar point. ''You often cannot communicate even the simplest thing to a visiting Chinese scholar. They lack the background.''

Even students specializing in the natural sciences can have such difficulties. Weak language skills and inability to cope in an American university can leave a student isolated and lonely, and fearful for his future on his return home.

If he also fails in studies, the pressure can mount, with the student feeling isolated both from Americans around him and from his Chinese colleagues. A China analyst notes there have been a number of unpublicized suicides by Chinese students in the US.

China is slowly recognizing the importance of fields other than science. There is growing emphasis on the study of Western law - both to improve China's legal system and to boost efficiency in promoting international commerce.

Columbia University's law school draws about half a dozen mid-level Chinese officials to New York each year. They spend four months in school studying the legal aspects of foreign trade, then become interns at major American law firms.

In addition to an idealistic wish to improve Chinese legal education, law firms support interns for practical reasons, notes Columbia law professor Randall Edwards. Firms with foreign trade partners may hope interns will promote cooperative dealings on trade and other matters if they are promoted in government service after they return to China.

This is also a motivation behind a number of private grants, scholarships, and internships, several educational specialists say. By supporting a Chinese student's program of study in the US, American organizations can hope to build on the traditional Chinese way of doing things by using guanzhi (special connection). When the student is later promoted, guanzhi will be even more important.

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