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by John C. Thomson

When I arrived in Beijing in June 1978, foreign diplomats were forbidden to visit any schools or universities and they had minimal contact with government organizations. Although both the U.S. and China were interested in resuming academic exchanges, the obstacles were daunting.

I was assigned to the U.S. Liaison Office (USLO), an unofficial organization representing U.S interests in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in the absence of an official embassy. After establishment of formal diplomatic relations between the two countries in January 1979, I became part of the newly opened U.S. embassy in China, the successor to the Liaison Office. I am pleased to have worked directly on the restoration of U.S.-PRC educational exchanges after a hiatus of 30 years that followed the communist take-over in 1949.

John Thomson (top right) with the staff of the Press and Cultural Section of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing in 1979

In 1978, each side was woefully ignorant of the educational system in the other country. The PRC was just beginning to recover from the Mao era and disruptions of the 10-year Cultural Revolution. Any contact with foreigners was regarded with suspicion, and many professors and scientists, especially those who had studied abroad, were severely persecuted; some committed suicide. Most universities and research institutes had been closed or severely disrupted.

Our only contacts with universities were a few foreign teachers of English who came to the Liaison Office in search of English teaching materials. We were restricted to contact with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) only; if we needed to deal with other ministries or organizations, the MFA would arrange it. Phone directories were not available.

Enter Deng Xiaoping

Everything in the PRC was under centralized government planning and control, especially education and science. Deng Xiaoping, purged by Mao Zedong during the Cultural Revolution and rehabilitated as vice premier in 1977, had decided to tackle education as a priority. He ordered the reinstatement of the university entrance examination, which took place in December 1977, and directed the Ministry of Education to examine the issue of overseas study and training.

In the U.S., universities operate independently of the government, and were eager for educational and scientific exchanges with Chinese counterparts. Organizations such as the Committee on Scholarly Communication with the PRC and the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations had tried for years to initiate long-term exchanges of scholars and students, but without success. It was simply too dangerous for Chinese academics and scientists to have contacts with foreign institutions and individuals.

I date the opening for U.S.-PRC scholarly exchanges to the May 1978 China visit by President Carter’s National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzeziński. Deng Xiaoping told Brzezinski that China desperately needed to develop its science and technology. In response, Brzezinski arranged for the U.S. side to send a high-level delegation of science administrators headed by Dr. Frank Press, the President’s Science Advisor, to Beijing for a mid-July visit. During the delegation’s final meeting, the Chinese surprised us by proposing to send 500 scientists and scholars to the U.S. for training and said they would provide the funding.

Following this visit, the PRC side wanted to initiate informal exchanges with U.S. universities, who were also eager to begin exchanges with China. However, the USG insisted that a formal government-to-government agreement was required to start the exchanges. In the end, the two sides arranged for a PRC education delegation to come to the U.S. in October 1978 to visit schools and negotiate an agreement.

We were interested in knowing the competence of the post-Cultural Revolution students in what became known as the “Class of ’77”, as a possible indicator of the level of scientific knowledge among their professors. We had asked repeatedly for copies of the mathematics, chemistry, and physics sections of the new 1977 entrance exams, to no avail. However, on the eve of my departure for Washington to participate in the October negotiations, I was given copies of the three exams. I delivered them to the suburban Washington office of the Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS) at 5:00 p.m. the day of my arrival; I was told to pick up the English translations at 9:00 a.m. the next morning. I was impressed.

Warm Reception for PRC Delegation

The PRC delegation first visited the west coast, e.g. the University of California Berkeley, Stanford, University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), and California Institute of Technology (CalTech). The delegation head, Peking University President Zhou Peiyuan, was a Caltech Ph.D. I joined the delegation in Washington DC before we headed off to the midwest, including Ohio University and Ohio State, followed by Boston and New York.

The midwest schools extended a warm welcome. Ohio University chartered a plane, welcomed us at the airport with the school marching band, and hosted us to a wonderful Chinese luncheon at the president’s home, prepared by Chinese faculty wives. They and the other midwest schools were eager to accept Chinese scholars and students. “Make sure they wear those Mao suits!” was one comment.

Harvard offered soup and sandwiches at the university guest house, with welcome remarks by Provost Henry Rosovsky, an economic historian specializing in East Asia, who said something like: “We welcome your visit to Harvard. Of course, being Harvard, we have standards. If your students and scholars meet those standards, they will be welcome here; if not, they will study elsewhere.” At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Zhou Peiyuan met privately with the president.

After the delegation returned to Washington, the two sides negotiated the first formal agreement between the two governments, a Memorandum of Understanding on the exchange of scholars and students. The PRC would send 500 scholars and scientists to the U.S. for up to two years of study. Due to funding limits, the U.S. government sponsored only seven students and five scholars for study in China in 1979.

Finding the Ministry of Education

The selection of the initial group of U.S. scholars and students led to my first visit to the PRC Ministry of Education (MOE), as we had to negotiate conditions for the scholars’ research. My first task was to find the MOE. It was rumored to be behind the Nationalities Hotel, west of Tiananmen Square. The Liaison Office Chinese driver steered into the lanes behind the hotel, but stopped when we came to a fork in the road. There was an old woman sunning herself on her doorstep. I rolled down the window and asked for directions to the MOE. Although she didn’t speak or move a muscle, her eyeballs indicated the left fork. A model of circumspection. I thanked her.

First group of American students in China arrives at the Beijing Foreign Language Institute in February 1979. Photo by John Grobowski

The MOE was housed in an old four-story red brick building, with some of the windows broken, packing cases stacked on the front steps, and a freshly-painted sign indicating it was the Ministry. After looking at my calling card, the doorman walked back to a corridor and bellowed “Meiguo yimi laile!” (“The American First Secretary is here!”) This call was repeated more faintly in another corridor. Finally a young woman appeared and escorted me to my meeting.

Comrade Wang looked uncomfortable speaking to an American official. Our meeting became even more strained when he announced that the two U.S. scholar field research projects (anthropology and sociology, as I recall) would not be possible. Several subsequent visits to the MOE, at the request of Washington, also drew rebuffs.

Michel Oksenberg, noted China expert from the University of Michigan, was on the National Security Council, overseeing issues involving China and East Asia. He was adamant that American scholars should be able to perform field research in the PRC, and told Brzezinski the U.S. had leverage with the 500 Chinese scholars scheduled to come to the U.S. They alerted President Carter to the problem, and he agreed to raise it with Deng Xiaoping during his meeting in Washington. When told of this possibility just prior to the meeting, Chinese officials pleaded with Oksenberg to not have Carter raise the issue, promising to solve the problem.

Unaware of this promise, I was summoned to the MOE a few days later. Comrade Wang smiled tightly and said: “I am pleased to inform you the leadership has agreed to the two field research projects. In fact, if you deem it necessary, we will build you a village!” I thanked him, but declined the offer.

Speeding Up the Plans

Both sides proceeded on the assumption the exchanges would begin the following year. However, after the December 15 surprise announcement of the establishment of U.S.-PRC formal diplomatic relations effective January 1, 1979, the Minister of Education was personally ordered by Deng Xiaoping to have the first 50 scholars in the U.S. before January 1. It was a busy two weeks. Mr. Deng was not a patient man.

The MOE and the Chinese Academy of Sciences had already been working on selection and orientation of scientists and engineers for study abroad. From this group, 52 scholars were chosen, most of them 35 to 45 years of age. They were rushed to tailors for new Mao suits and given new shoes before their visa interviews at the U.S. Liaison Office. In those days, USLO had only one consular officer who issued visas. I briefed the visa officer about the group, as their English level might not pass muster. A typical interview might have sounded like this:

Where do you plan to study in the U.S.? Chemistry.
What year were you born? Wuhan.
What is your specialty? Rochester University.

Nevertheless, all passed their interviews and obtained visas.

On a snowy night in late December, senior PRC officials, including the Minister of Education, Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Zhang Wenjin, Zhou Peiyuan, plus the head of the U.S. Liaison Office (and soon to be ambassador) Leonard Woodcock and other American officials were at Beijing’s Capital Airport to send off the 52 as they disappeared into the swirling snowflakes on a long walk to the airplane.

All but one returned on schedule to China.

Figuring Out How to Structure Exchanges

In the U.S. government, we had to determine what exchange model to follow. Clearly the U.S.-Soviet model, with 1-for-1 exchanges, would not work. There were just over 100 Soviet scholars in the U.S. in 1978, with arrangements handled by IREX (International Research & Exchanges Board). While in Washington for the MOU negotiations, I visited the National Science Foundation office charged with keeping track of U.S.-Soviet exchanges. Several blackboards in the office displayed the name, host institution, specialty, and contact info for each Soviet scholar or scientist.

The person in charge of the office asked me: “What’s this about some Red Chinese coming here for study and research?” I briefed him on the MOU negotiations and White House interest in promoting the exchanges. When told there would be 500 Chinese to start, he exclaimed: “We need to get more blackboards!”

I was invited back the next day to a meeting with representatives from various security and intelligence agencies to discuss how to restrict certain research topics from Chinese scholars. We devised a two-page form requesting detailed information on research topics, and home and host institutions, to be submitted with each visa application.

From that point on U.S.-PRC exchanges developed rapidly with minimal government guidance or control. After the initial group of 52 Chinese scholars arrived, many American schools began their own exchanges with China. Chinese students and scholars with relatives in the U.S. to sponsor them also began to go to American schools; these privately-funded exchanges rapidly outgrew the official ones.

During my remaining two-plus years in the PRC, I led the Press and Cultural Section of the embassy as we promoted teaching of English and American Studies, distributed a bilingual handbook on study in the U.S., requested Voice of America radio programs on U.S. education, placed reference material collections on U.S. education in 10 key locations in China, and assisted U.S. students and scholars in China. In 1980 I worked with the Ministry of Education to revive Fulbright exchanges; in 1947, China had been the first participating country in the Fulbright Program.

By the time I left Beijing in October 1981, I was delighted to see over 8,000 Chinese scholars and students in the U.S., and hundreds of U.S. scholars and students in China. Over 80 sister school cooperation agreements were in operation, many initiated by Chinese professors who had come to the U.S. for study in the 1940s. This was the beginning of rapid growth in an important component of the U.S.-PRC relationship: the exchange of scholars, students, and scientific knowledge. The U.S. and the PRC both benefitted from the enormous increase in personal interaction and friendships, and awareness of each other’s society, economy, government, environment, and culture.End.


John Thomson

John Thomson was a career diplomat with the U.S. Foreign Service from 1970 to 1997, serving in Mainland China, Taiwan, Indonesia, Sweden, and Washington D.C. He lived a total of 15 years in Beijing and Shanghai, and 12 in Taiwan. More recently John was Resident Director of the University of California Beijing Center; the first City of Chicago representative in China for three years; and Resident Director of the Inter-University Program for Chinese Language Studies at Tsinghua University in Beijing for five years. Prior to that, John was managing editor at China Online, an Internet start-up based in Chicago to provide China business news and publications on China. He graduated from San Francisco State University, and has a M.A. degree in East Asian Studies from Harvard University. Before beginning his study of Chinese language in 1965, John served four years in the U.S. Marine Corps, including two years in Okinawa. He is a member of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations.


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