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Study abroad, then and now

Xinhua, September 19, 2014 Adjust font size:

Watching the TV series featuring China's late leader Deng Xiaoping and China's historic reform, Liu Baicheng could not help shedding some tears.

They were tears of joy as Liu, one of 52 students sent to the United States to study among China's first group of visiting scholars, re-lived the life changing moment brought on by Deng's effort to negotiate with American representatives 35 years ago.

"The two-year study not only changed my own life, but led me on a path to science and research," Liu said.

In the following 30 years, Liu, now 81, would lead his team to establish China's first research program in computer material engineering. Combining information technology and the material process, a field that set the foundation for developing the country's modern manufacturing industry.

According to the figures from the China Scholarship Council, the number of government-funded students abroad exceeded 167,000 across 100 countries since China's opening up in 1978.

The returnees, who have brought back skills in energy, mining, environment, agriculture and other high-demand sectors, play vital roles in the construction of the country. Like Liu, many of them have set up new research fields, which were greatly devastated in the 10-year-long Cultural Revolution.


Liu remembers the shock of seeing hundreds of cars zipping along an expressway as he landed at New York airport in 1979.

"At that time, cars were scarce in China. Even the busiest shopping area, Wangfujing in downtown Beijing, became quiet from 7 p.m. in the evening. I felt the huge difference with the U.S. then," he recalled.

China's per capita gross domestic product was less than 200 U.S. dollars in 1978, one-fiftieth of the level in the U.S. at the time.

With the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976 disrupting much of China's education system, most visiting scholars sent abroad were middle-aged. When Liu arrived, he was 45 years old and had never seen a computer.

The moment he saw his landlord's third-grade son playing with an Apple computer, he was once again astonished, believing machines could change scientific development, as well as the progress of human society.

He decided to learn FORTRAN, then one of the most senior computer programming languages, working more than 12 hours until 3 to 4 a.m. every day.

While at the University of Wisconsin, he peered through a scanning electron microscope for the first time, which allowed for hundreds of times more magnification than what he used in China. "From two- to three-dimensional, I had a much more profound understanding about the mechanism of casting alloy using the advanced equipment," he said.


After his study in the University of Wisconsin, Liu decided to go to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) before coming home.

"There is no place like home," he said.

According to official statistics, nearly 290 academics with the Chinese Academy of Sciences had learning experiences in the U.S., and more than 7 percent of the academics with the Chinese Academy of Engineering had studied in the U.S., including Liu.

While Liu and other returnees have made achievements in narrowing the scientific gap between a developing China and the developed world, many other Chinese students, either government-funded or self-supported, choose to stay abroad.

According to the blue paper on China's overseas study released in 2012, among the 2.2 million students studying abroad from 1978 to 2011, only 817,000 of them, or 36.5 percent, returned.

Yang Di, who began work at ExxonMobil oil in the U.S. after graduating from the MIT in 2009, said the most attractive point of the U.S. is encouraged innovation.

The living conditions in China and the U.S. have greatly narrowed. It was the research and development capacity of the company that attracted him most, he said.

"Although China has notable oil giants, they still have a long way to go to cultivate technical innovation," he said, adding there are nearly 1,000 oil companies in the U.S. with deep-rooted innovation.

Chinese President Xi Jinping last month urged authorities to work out concrete policies for innovation-driven development and to implement a number of major national programs on science and technology.

"Innovation should be the driving force behind the developmental transition and economic restructuring," Xi said during a meeting of the Central Leading Group on Financial and Economic Affairs in Beijing.

Apart from research environment differences, family factors are another reason they stay.

China is providing more golden opportunities for returnees compared with many developed countries, where economic turmoil has had a big impact in recent years. "But many families have decided to send the husbands back, leaving wives and children abroad," said Chao Xing, mother of a two-year-old.

She said wives and children world rather stay in developed nations for cleaner air, better education and safer food for the children, taken China's smog and a series of food safety scandals into consideration.

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