Keep Wide the Education Door to China

WHILE American businessmen are beginning to return to the quiet but haunted city of Beijing, many American organizations that send scholars and teachers to China are canceling or considering cancellation of programs for the coming academic year. These educational organizations are acting with understandable motives, from the need to protect personnel to the desire not to conduct business as usual with a repressive regime. Based on my conversations on Chinese university campuses during a six-week visit this summer, however - a visit split in half by the June 4 battle of citizens against tanks in Beijing - I believe the decade-old and, until now, steadily growing interchange of American and Chinese educators should not slow down. It should accelerate.

Pedagogy has rarely delivered so much to the oppressed as thousands of American teachers have delivered to the Chinese. I think of a young Beijing student who sought me out during last month's demonstrations because I was obviously an American teacher. America was lucky, she said, to have had George Washington as our first president.

``Why?'' I asked.

Because he did not want to stay forever as president, she said, because ``he did not want to be an emperor.''

Such cross-cultural thinking explains why students erected a sister of the Statue of Liberty to lift her lamp in Tiananmen Square. It also explains why Chinese state television has shown and reshown that massive statue being smashed down by army troops. But troops cannot smash lessons about George Washington.

Wherever I went Chinese students praised the American teachers with whom they studied. Even strangers in restaurants, when they heard I was a teacher, said they hoped I would stay in China. They said, to me, ``Do not leave.'' But they meant ``Do not forsake us, America.''

American organizations that send academics to China should heed that plea from the democracy-hungry people of China. They should consider, too, the crisis that even a one-year gap could pose for Chinese university administrators, many of them liberal-minded. If we continue to send our teachers, then administrators can plug them into courses as usual. But if we create a gap in which American teachers are missing, these administrators might find that future hiring of Americans becomes blocked by conservatives who could allege that American teachers bring not just the old evil of ``spiritual pollution,'' but also the new vice of professional unreliability.

We also need to be cautious about our policies at home. We must face the hard question of what American policy should be toward visiting Chinese students and scholars in the United States. The key term should be ``visiting.'' Some 30,000 Chinese scholars and students now have visas for temporary residence in the US. Another 20,000 have already completed study at American universities and returned to China, where their influence is significant. (At Tiananmen Square last month some Chinese students marched under banners naming the American campuses where they had studied.)

The influence of American education on China will not be profound, however, if Chinese students and scholars never return. Last year, when I interviewed dozens of Chinese academics visiting in the US, I found that many wavered between a desire to return and improve their homeland and a desire to stay in the calmer US.

Their future inclinations will be strongly influenced by American visa policies. President Bush has offered temporary extensions to current Chinese visitors, but Congress may soon legislate more generous arrangements.

The US must be careful. A tight-fisted US visa policy could, in effect, send a visiting Chinese student straight from an American campus to a Chinese prison. But an overly generous policy could, ironically, contribute to the political and intellectual imprisonment of an entire nation.

If most Chinese students stay in the US, they will have little effect on China. Each US-trained democrat working at a Chinese institution - whether a major newspaper or research academy - can have more influence in China than any 10 dissidents fulminating at a US campus.

Also, if most Chinese students stay in the US, China will decide that its decade-old human investment in overseas education is bringing insufficient returns. It may then severely cut the flow of intellectuals abroad.

This risk horrifies the young intellectuals I met in China. It horrifies them because the large number of students sent by China and received warmly by the US - the largest group of students and scholars now here from any foreign nation - has made US education a beacon toward which an entire generation of Chinese students now navigates. Almost every Chinese student and teacher I met in the past six weeks told me that he or she hoped someday to study in America.

For hundreds of thousands of Chinese, American education shines as a lamp lifted beside a golden door, a gateway symbolizing not heavenly peace but earthly ferment, not spiritual pollution but intellectual honesty. In the crucial next few months, it should be the business of America to open its educational gates to China as wide as they will go.

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