Bridging Minds Across the Pacific
By Cheng Li
March 1, 2005
Deng Xiaoping's 1978 decision to send a large number of Chinese students to study overseas, especially in the United States, is often perceived as the first astonishing sign of Communist China's opening to the outside world. On December 26, 1978, the first group of fifty-two Chinese students and scholars traveled to the United States to pursue academic studies. Their arrival in the U.S. occurred a few days after the Third Plenary Session of the 11th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)—an important meeting that marked the beginning of China's economic reform and "Open Door policy." Also not coincidentally, these students arrived just a few days before the establishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and the People's Republic of China (PRC). China's opening through the channel of educational exchanges with the United States aroused worldwide attention at the time. Some commented that this was a "move unprecedented in the Communist world." At the same time, eight American students and young scholars set off for Beijing or Shanghai to study Chinese history, culture, and society. These vanguards of Sino-U.S. educational exchanges were regarded as "political missionaries" or "goodwill ambassadors" rather than students or academics.
The top leaders of both countries explicitly linked these Sino-U.S. educational exchanges to broader aspirations to achieve world peace and regional stability. When the Agreement on Scientific and Cultural Exchanges between the United States and China was signed in Washington, D.C. in January 1979, Deng told the international media, "It is my belief that extensive contacts and cooperation among nations and increased interchanges and understanding between peoples will make the world we live in more safe, more stable, and more peaceful." At the same meeting, President Jimmy Carter said to Deng and other Chinese guests, "Our aim is to make this kind of exchange between our countries no longer the exception, but the norm; no longer a matter of headlines and historians, but a routine part of the everyday life of both the Chinese and the American people."
During the past twenty-five years, the educational exchange between the United States and China has indeed become so commonplace that people tend to overlook its remarkable political impact on China's transformation, the bilateral relations of the two countries, and stability in the Asia-Pacific region. Between 1978 and 2003, a total of 700,200 PRC citizens traveled abroad to study, with a large percentage going to the United States. During the same period, a large number of foreigners studied and taught in China. Between 1978 and 2002, China hosted approximately 350,000 foreign students. In 2002 alone, approximately 85,000 foreign students studied in China. In the same year, some 445,000 foreign scholars traveled to China for academic conferences, scholarly research, and other scientific exchanges; and American teachers offered courses at several hundred schools across the country.
Sino-U.S. educational exchanges have endured over the past quarter of a century despite some immensely troubling events, such as the government crackdown on the student movement in Tiananmen in 1989, which resulted in the Chinese Student Protection Act signed by President George Bush, and the Chinese embassy bombing incident in Belgrade in 1999, which incited anti-American protests by Chinese students in Beijing and many other cities in the PRC. One can reasonably argue that, had multidimensional and dynamic contacts (especially involving cultural and educational exchanges) not been established between the two countries prior to these events, these incidents may have been more detrimental to U.S.-China relations. In a sense, educational exchanges served as a "bridge over troubled U.S.-China water," as suggested by the title of an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. While it is debatable what factors actually led to the restoration of normalcy in U.S.-China relations after these disturbing events, the endurance of Sino-American educational exchanges has demonstrated the importance of the internationalization of education in today's globalized world.
More recently, China has witnessed a tidal wave of returnees to the country. By the end of 2003, approximately 172,800 Chinese students and scholars who studied abroad had returned to China. In 2003 alone, approximately 20,100 students and scholars returned to their native land after completing studies overseas. A new Chinese term, haiguipai (returnees from study abroad), was recently coined to describe this rapidly growing elite group. A quarter-century-long effort to train China's best and brightest in the United States now seems to have come to fruition.
ReviewsHarvard Sociologist Ezra Vogel, commenting on Bridging Minds Across the Pacific, said, "In the 25 years since China opened up, 700,000 Chinese have traveled abroad to study; 172,000 have already returned. This book is the best account yet of this intellectual interchange that has brought not a clash but a dialogue between civilizations. The result: a renaissance of intellectual life that has led China to stop promoting revolutions and instead promote trade, investment, and international conferences."
Princeton professor of political and international affairs Lynn T. White observes, "Brilliant students from China have taken doctorates in the United States, while relatively few Americans have studied language in China. How has educational exchange affected both countries? What recent cracks have appeared in the educational bridge? This book is the first to provide detailed statistical and narrative accounts to answer such questions. ... Anyone interested in China or Sino-American relations should read this wonderful book."