China's Incubator for Eggheads

It's out with the abacus and in with the Internet at Beijing's high-tech university

Spacey lyrics by pop singer David Bowie blast from the university's multimedia center. Students walk around with palm-sized telephones to their ears. Solar-powered cars zip around a campus dotted with satellite dishes. And genetic engineers in blue lab jackets walk by robots playing basketball.

Welcome to Tsinghua University, China's brave new world designed to raise elite leaders for the 21st century.

Tsinghua, long a gray bastion of Soviet-model teaching and discipline, is rapidly being transformed into the country's most open and globally linked center of learning.

Now described as China's MIT, the school is becoming a curious hybrid of competing cultures and ideas, where advertisements for Apple Computer are posted alongside calls to study the Communist Party's latest directives.

State-run news broadcasts segue into Western pop music on campus loudspeakers, and English easily outpaces Russian as the second language of younger teachers and students.

That China's leadership would open the university's gates so wide to Western influences is amazing given its recent history.

Following the Chinese military's 1989 crackdown on student-led demonstrations for democracy, Communist commissars invaded Tsinghua and schools across the country to rid them of independent-thinking teachers, dissidents, and access to "bourgeois" ideas from abroad.

With machine-gun-toting martial-law troops posted outside major universities in Beijing, the party's thought police searched dormitories for antigovernment articles and stripped libraries of foreign press reports on the crackdown.

"Overnight, the scattered copies of Time and Newsweek at Tsinghua vanished, and most students were afraid to have any contacts with foreigners," says an engineering student of that era.

"Yet eight years later, the school is so open and free that it is unrecognizable," he adds.

Some educators even suggest that reformists who have risen in the party since 1989 may be experimenting with limited freedoms that, if successful at Tsinghua, could be extended across China.

Linking to the West

Today, touring the new, high-tech library at the heart of Tsinghua seems like a virtual-reality trip to an American campus: Students seated before rows of computer terminals in the lobby can as easily surf the Internet as locate books or CD-ROMs in the arched, brick-and-glass building.

"Tsinghua is easily the most wired campus in China, and is technologically more sophisticated than some US schools," says Howard Chan, an American professor at Tsinghua.

Library lounges are interspersed with private research areas, bathed in sunlight from ground-to-ceiling windows. In contrast, most Chinese libraries are built and run like fortresses, where entrance is tightly controlled, as is access to books.

"Library officials, like government workers throughout Chinese society, see their control over rare resources as a form of power, and only grant access to those with connections or more power," says an American scholar in Beijing who asked not to be identified.

At the entrance to Tsinghua's new architecture school, a traditional Chinese wooden pilaster supporting a wing-tipped eave stands opposite a classic Greek column. The mix of Eastern and Western designs seems to reflect a larger blueprint for Tsinghua and China's development on the world stage.

In the school's nearby computer center, while most students peer into technical abstracts, some flip through Web news sites or review would-be mates via Internet dating services.

"Tsinghua encourages its students to jump right into the computer age," says Professor Chan.

"For the first time, they are finding that learning can be fun. Students can browse through different ideas and different cultures, and in turn help make the school more global in its outlook," he says.

Pointing out the brass plaques outside the building that plug Motorola, Compaq, Intel, and a dozen other American companies, Chan says, "Many American firms have set up joint labs or training centers here."

The aim of the high-tech titans from across the Pacific, he adds, is "partly to recruit rising talent and partly to get a foothold in the market."

Indeed, China's technocratic leaders, many of them graduates of Tsinghua, seem to have selected the school to be at the crest of a new wave of Sino-American exchanges. Vice President Al Gore visited Tsinghua last March, and nearly 10,000 students surrounded the campus building where Microsoft leader Bill Gates spoke Dec. 12.

"When Bill Gates arrived on the campus, it seemed like the Second Coming, judging by the enthusiasm of the crowds," says another American instructor.

One day earlier, US Ambassador to China James Sasser told Tsinghua students that "as friends and partners, Americans and Chinese share a vision of a prosperous and peaceful future - a future of free minds and free markets...."

Such talk would have been branded "counterrevolutionary" in 1989, when America was accused of conspiring with Chinese students to oppose communism.

Leading alumni

Yet China's new "Tsinghua Dynasty" leaders, as Ambassador Sasser terms them, have shown increasing willingness to rebuild ties with the US and expose the country's educated elite to varying viewpoints.

"More than 200 of China's top leaders have graduated from Tsinghua," says Sasser.

In fact, so many Tsinghua graduates have landed top government posts that it almost seems there is an underground tunnel leading from the school to Zhongnanhai, the vermilion-walled headquarters of the Communist Party. And many of these graduates seem to back stronger ties with the West.

Zhu Rongji, the dean of Tsinghua's prestigious business school, is the third most powerful man in China and the master architect of the drive to transform its Soviet-style economy into a Western, free-market system. Considered a strong advocate of capitalist, if not democratic, reforms, Vice Premier Zhu is now one of five Tsinghua graduates on the party's ruling Politburo and is widely expected to replace hard-liner Li Peng as premier in March.

"Many other Tsinghua alumni are scattered in the upper levels of China's ministries," says Chan, "and they tend to be very progressive."

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