FINALLY, someone asked the question that was on everyone's mind. After polite discussion of the role of women in Chinese education and the like, a man in the back of the room at Radcliffe College asked - almost apologetically - for the speaker's thoughts on the much-publicized student demonstrations in that country late last year. Xie Xide (pronounced ``She Sheedeh'') is not the sort of person who invites stiff interrogation. Though president of prestigious Fudan University in Shanghai, a physicist of note, and a member of the Chinese Communist Party's Central Committee, her manner is that of a grandmother who carries candies in her pocketbook to quiet the children on the bus. She just about disappears behind a lecturn. This disarming quality serves her well in gliding past troublesome questions. But in this case, she braved the ideological land mines in a manner that brought the room to a hush.
Yes, Dr. Xie said, she could understand the student complaints about crowded conditions, scarce library books, and their impatience with ``unhealthy elements'' in the government and the Communist Party.
But she pleaded that China has to approach these problems in its own way. ``You [in the United States] can raise big hell about Irangate and everything else. You can argue and argue but the transportation system goes on.''
China, by contrast, lacks this center of gravity. Political disruption can bring the trains to a halt, not to mention landing the intellectuals in jail.
``We have to move a little bit slowly,'' she said. ``Those of us who lived through the years of turmoil cherish the present stability.''
The ``years of turmoil'' were, of course, Mao Tse-tung's Cultural Revolution (1966-76), during which Xie was held captive in a university laboratory, separated from her husband and son for months. The upheaval derailed an entire generation of researchers and students, setting back by years the nation's efforts to catch up with the 20th century before it becomes the 21st. Xie is in the US to raise money through the Washington-based Fudan Foundation, which wants to lure more American teachers to the Shanghai campus.
Xie thinks, for example, that China needs to produce students with broad academic backgrounds who can adapt to rapidly changing technologies. But the country doesn't have a Silicon Valley to provide on-the-job training to young generalists. (Nor can young Chinese gain a knack for technology early on by tinkering with cars and other gadgets the way American kids do, Xie adds.) Lacking these, Chinese universities have to keep training specialists at the same time they are trying to provide a more comprehensive education.
Another example: rural education. China's most pressing needs are there, in primary and junior high schools, Xie says. There is a desperate need for more and better teachers. That means the universities must turn out more graduates - at present, only one in 600 Chinese makes it. But university students are already crowded eight to a dorm room, and at least one campus had to shut off the electricity at night as an economy move. Besides, where are the new college teachers going to come from?
It is conundrums like these that cause the Chinese to think in terms of centuries and, meanwhile, look to the West for help. Xie hopes that joint ventures with US companies, for example, will provide the on-the-job training that young engineers currently lack. And to attract more American teachers to Chinese colleges, the Fudan Foundation wants to build a sort of mini-campus with modern library, American-style buildings, and many of the luxuries of home. In the past, Americans have shunned the cold classrooms and sparse research facilities in China.
The hope is that Chinese students will get a US-style education without the expense of leaving home. The move could also be connected to official concern about Chinese students who come to America and embrace what the Chinese call ``bourgeois liberal'' ideas. A few months ago, nearly 1,700 such students at American universities published two open letters in Chinese-language newspapers in New York criticizing Peking's crackdown on dissent.
China's difficulties are not entirely foreign to Americans, however. Officially, there is no discrimination against women, for example, But in practice, ``we still have problems,'' as Xie delicately puts it. Less than 15 percent of PhD candidates are women, and only 3.5 percent of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Yet the country makes ``certain allowances'' for boys on junior high school entrance exams because they do so much worse than girls.
``We wouldn't want to miss those promising, talented boys,'' Xie added with a twinkle.
And then there are those impatient university students. They don't remember the Cultural Revolution. They just don't have any appreciation. ``After the door opened up,'' she said in an interview, ``they want to compare China with Hong Kong and Singapore. They don't want to compare [it] with the past.''