Huang Hai-ni, a 22-year-old student from Peking interested in the arts, has done her best these last few weeks at Wellesley to play down her status as perhaps the first citizen of mainland China since 1949 to take courses at an American college.
By altering her name to the more American-sounding Roni Wang and burying herself in English language studies, she may be setting the tone for hundreds of Chinese students and researchers expected to descend on U.S. campuses this school year.
U.S. officials are discussing the future of this suddenly and somewhat haphazardly organized exchange program with a high-level delegation of Chinese educators visiting Washington. The Americans are uncertain what impact these very different students will have on U.S. universities. But the Chinese seem eager to make their invasion of America's sometimes raucous campuses as quiet and unobstrusive as possible.
Earlier this year, when officials in Peking revealed to surprised American visitors their interest in such an exchange, one American asked about the dangers of Chinese youth becoming enamored of Western life and refusing to go back to China.
"The Chinese attitude was: 'The stakes are very high. We'll lose a few, but so what?'" recalled one American visitor.
After years in which the corruption influence of the West was a topic for fiery political debate in Peking, a hard-headed group of post-Mao Tse-Tung leaders have decided they must run whatever risks necessary to acquire foreign expertise to help modernize the Chinese economy. This includes sending what some Chinese estimate will be tens of thousands of students abroad to soak up as much science, mathematics and engineering as possible.
With only about 100 Chinese students now studying overseas, such a sudden esclation of student exchanges is likely to run into unfortunate problems. This is particularly true for the United States, where until recently the only resident Chinese nationals have been diplomats living by themselves with only limited contact with ordinary American citizens.
Mary Bullock, staff director of the U.S. Committee on Scholarly Communication with the People's Republica of China, said America educators made it clear at a late August conference in Washington that Chinese exchange students would not be protected from the usual give and take of university life. She said the Chinese have indicated that is fine with them.
"There may be as many as 500 Chinese researchers and students living here by next fall," Bullock said in a telephone interview from Washington.
But she said the actual number of Chinese going to the United States and American students going to China will have to be worked out in discussions that the White House, the National Science Foundation and the individual universities are conducting with the delegation led by Peking University President and U.S.-trained physicist Chou Pei-yuan.
Meanwhile, a few students and researchers already have reached the United States through private arrangements. The Wellessley vice president for college relations, Alla O'Brien, said Roni Wang arrived at the Masachusetts women's college this fall largely through the efforts of college lecturer Carmelita Hinton. Hinton's father is the author of Fanshen, an extraordinarily detailed and sympathetic account of Chinese Communist land reform. Her family has had unusually close ties with important Peking leaders for years.
Wang, the daughter of a Chinese artist, is living with Hinton while she attends English and art classes at Wellesley and biology classes at a nearby prep school, Dana Hall, O'Brien said in a telephone inteview that the young woman expects to apply soon for admission as a full-time undergraduate in February.
According to Hinton, Wang's stay at Wellesley is entirely privately supported and involves no Chinese government funds at the moment.
Two Peking students in their mid-20, Kathy and Joy Yang, also are expected to enroll at Wellesley soon as special students, O'Briend said. She said the sisters' grandmother, a Wellesley graduate, had written Wellesley President Barbara W. Newell from China seven years ago seeking to have the girls enrolled, but it had only become possible now with the new Chinese attitude toward exchanges. The sisters' grandmother died last year, but their mother, who has a master's degree from Wellesley, still lives in Peking, O'Brien said.
O'Brien estimates that a half-dozen or so students from Nationalist Chinese-controlled Taiwan may be on the Wellesley campus, but she expects no serious incidents between them and the mainland Chinese students. If Wang is admitted as an undergraduate, she will move into a dormitory and receive no special protection, O'Brien said.
On European campuses, where a few Chinese students have studied alongside students from Taiwan, contacts between the two groups have been infrequent but usually cordial. Chinese students in Europe have found it easy to immerse themselves in their studies and avoid much contact with the rest of campus life. Many U.S. educators expect they will behave similarly in the United States.
Chinese officials, who have said they will pay all expenses of their change students, appear to have been stunned by the tuitions charged at schools like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cal Tech and Harvard where they think their students can learn the most. Some American officials report the Chinese acted as if they did not believe study at such institutions could cost as much as $7,000 a year.
John Jamieson, professor of oriental languages at the University of California at Berkeley, said he expects the number of Chinese students to fall somewhat below 500 by next fall because of many problems that must be ironed out. Only about 10 percent of those students are likely to be undergraduates, the Chinese have indicated.
Six science researchers are expected to take up residence at Stanford University by the middle of this month. Their ages range from 36 to 44. At Berkeley, two Chinese mathematicians arrived three weeks ago to begin research at the invitation of Berkeley professor Shing-chen Chern. They are sharing an apartment in a married students' apartment building, Jamieson said.
U.S. universities involved in the exchange program have expressed the wish that American students also be allowed to study in China. Since 1949 no American students have been permitted to enroll at any Chinese university, except for a few Chinese-Americans and the offspring of the small colony of American experts living in China. Some American educators say they think about 50 Americans, mostly scholars of ancient and modern China, will be studying in China by next fall, but a final agreement has not yet been reached with the Chinese.
Perry Link, who teaches Chinese language at UCLA, said the Chinese delegation led by Peking University President Chou seemed a bit leery of American research into Chinese affairs when it visited Los Angeles campuses last week.
"They said that they needed time to correct wrong interpretations of Chinese culture made by the Gang of Four [a purged clique of politicians led by Mao Tse-tung's wife, Ching] before they allowed foreigners to come in and study Chinese culture," Link said.
National Science Foundation director Richard Atkinson is negotiating with the Chinese in Washington over details of the exchange. American professors who have spoken to the Chinese detect few worries on Peking's part about their carefully screened students going astray or being unable to measure up to American university standards.
A British diplomat here familiar with the lives of Chinese students in England said he expects students who reach the United States to study hard and quietly, and then return to China, perhaps with heightened expectations of what life there should be like.
At a recent meeting with American journalists, Chinese Poliburo members Keng Piao said he hopes conditions will have improved so much in China by the time the students returned that none would miss life in the West.
"Anyway," the British diplomat said, "the Chinese are terribly attached to their own culture. They have a very low defection rate at all levels, much less than the Eastern Europeans, for instance. They just can't get away from being Chinese."