Scholarship and education

1978:Red China sent "pupils" to the capitalist West

Students arrived in the United States

Today's Beijing News ran a feature story remembering when China sent students to study in the West in 1978. Below is an abridged translation.

1978: Choosing students to be sent abroad priority on foreign language skills not political considerations

by Xiang Lili

Translator's note: the headline of the article is somewhat misleading, as you can see from the political elements of the selection process described below.

June 23, 1978, after attending a meeting of the Education Department discussing the possibility of sending Chinese students out of China to study abroad, Deng Xiaoping, then the leader of China, had a reaction that surprised many: "It should be tens of thousands, not eight or ten...Let the Education Department do the research...No matter how much money it takes, it is worth it."

In July, the Education Department submitted a proposal the State Council outlining a plan to send three thousand students abroad. The proposal created a storm of indignation. Deng Xiaoping received many letter expressing doubt: "China is still a very poor country with little money to spare...the money spent on sending just one student to study in America could pay for the education of 20 students in China","What if these students never return?" Deng was determined. "Let's send them out first. Don't worry about whether they will run away. Even if 20% of them run away, we will still have 80%."

In August, the plan was approved by the State Council and students who would be sent abroad were selected. All candidates went through vigorous political examinations. Only those with parents and grandparents from "working class" were deemed politically reliable and could qualify. As a result, most of those selected were "worker-farmer-soldier students", older students who had served as workers, farmers or soldiers before being admitted to universities. A few of those selected to be sent abroad were university professors or specialists in various fields. This meant that most of the "pupils" sent abroad were actually middle-aged, with the oldest more than 60 year old.

The students gathered in Beijing for a two-month long political education program. Travels were arranged to visit the "motherland's beautiful mountains and rivers and the accomplishments of socialist construction." Students were told that when abroad, they were not allow to watch any TV programs other than the news. No Chinese student was to walk around a foreign country alone, but must always be accompanied by a fellow Chinese student. Students were also taught how to deal with possible "Taiwan special agents". According to Yang Chao, one of the students sent abroad, these rules were never strictly observed: Students stealthily watched the TV programs and were surprised to find them quite "healthy," and Chinese students were spread out over many universities which made following the "No walking alone" rule impossible for many.

December 26, 1978, 52 students arrived in the United States. They were all dressed in the same outfit - white shirts, black coats - everything, including bags and shoes, were government issued. They were told to take as much toilet paper and soap as possible because these items were supposedly very expensive abroad.

The students soon found that the toilet paper and soap were not the only expensive items. With a monthly food budget of only 120$, most students could not afford to eat out with friends or classmates. Zhang Gongqiong, one of the students sent abroad, said he was lucky to be in New York, because at the China's Embassy to UN he could eat a meal for only one dollar.

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There are currently 3 Comments for 1978:Red China sent "pupils" to the capitalist West.

Comments on 1978:Red China sent "pupils" to the capitalist West

A good friend of mine was among the first Chinese students to be sent to the UK - these guys numbered some true trend-setters in their ranks. It has to be said, though, that it has become the preserve of those with rich, social climbing parents.

I think the then Boss of China had some strategic vision about studying overseas. Perhaps because he himself had been to foreign countries before, and such personal experience had assisted hime to make the decision.

The author Jung Chang (who wrote the bestseller Wild Swans) was one of the first students to leave on this programme in 1978.

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