China's best and brightest are dying in their prime Needed but feared by government, intellectuals suffer


BEIJING -- For a man of 55, Hu Zihua is in terrible shape. A botched examination of his spinal column has left him disabled. His nerves are bad. He chain smokes. He has the pudgy, sallow look of someone who rarely sees the sun.

But it could be worse; statistically he should be dead.

Mr. Hu is one of China's "intellectuals," a name given to people with a higher education who work as researchers, authors and scientists. According to a recent study of 12,450 intellectuals in Beijing, the average life expectancy is 53.3 years.

That's not only lower by 20 years than the average Beijinger's life expectancy and 16 years below the average Chinese person's, it is a decline of five years over the past decade.

At a time when most Chinese are getting healthier and living longer, China's best and brightest are dying in their prime.

"This should be their golden period, when their thoughts are mature and their contributions to China the greatest. But they are under huge strains and dying in their 40s and 50s," said Zhang Boli, a doctor at the Cardiovascular and Cerebral Research Center at Tianjin's Chinese Medicine Hospital.

Indeed, as China tries to jump to the development and manufacture of high-technology products, its leaders often say they need healthy and productive intellectuals to write the software, design the computers and build the factories that will lead China to prosperity.

But as reflected in the health statistics, China's intellectuals constitute one of the country's most neglected groups. Housing is shabby, health care substandard, salaries low and professional and political pressures extremely high.

They have been the object of intense scrutiny over the 46-year history of the People's Republic of China. Leaders have often recognized their value but also feared their potential for independent thought.

Most recently, many teachers supported the 1989 demonstrations that led to the Tiananmen Square massacre of hundreds of their students. Afterward, campuses were militarized and intellectual freedom again curtailed, as it remains today.

But while under this tight control, intellectuals must also write prolifically, cranking out studies that advance knowledge but do not threaten the Communist Party's grip on power.

The pressure to succeed is often self-generated. Rank means everything: a bigger apartment, better health care, chances to travel abroad and, as elsewhere in the world, a higher salary.

In such an environment, strain leads to physical illness.

"I think there is a psychosomatic aspect to illness among China's intellectuals. Not to say it's insincere, but it has to do with strain and worry," said Perry Link, a Princeton University professor who has written a book about the lives of educated Chinese.

Growing psychological pressures were documented in the recent study by Li Liyan of the Research Institute of the National Sports Commission.

The study has been discussed in the official press, which has concluded that intellectuals need to exercise more and take it easier.

But Mr. Li's statistics show that other factors may be at work.

Compared with 10 years ago, deaths attributable to cardiovascular causes, which could reflect lack of exercise, are down. Instead, more people are dying from suicide, as well as respiratory diseases, a reflection of the badly deteriorating air quality in Beijing and China's other big cities.

Another growing cause of death is liver failure and digestive tract cancer, which Mr. Li attributes to the increasing consumption of processed foods. Poor sanitation means that many processed foods in China have high concentrations of poisonous fungi, he said.

Medical care is also low in quality. The clinic at Beijing University, considered the country's elite university, is notoriously bad, with long lines and almost every disease initially treated with a bagful of drugs, primarily aspirin and tetracycline. When they have to go to the hospital, intellectuals are among the least likely to be able to afford the bribes that doctors now routinely demand.

"It depends on what you need, but doctors generally want about 2,000 yuan [$250]," said a patient waiting in line at Beijing University's clinic.

That's double Mr. Hu's monthly salary of $125. To put the salary in context, he earns less than the maids who work in Beijing's diplomatic housing compounds, even though he has a doctorate and is a senior lecturer at a top university.

The low salaries have pushed many intellectuals into taking second jobs, further weakening their health.

"My father worked for the railroad and had six children," Mr. Hu said. "He could provide a better life for us than I can provide for my one daughter. Something isn't right."

Mr. Hu's neighborhood, known as Zhongguancun, is supposed to become China's Silicon Valley. On the surface, Zhongguancun seems a natural for such a role.

Here, 15,000 researchers work in 30 universities and colleges, as well as 200 national research institutes, many of them affiliated with the elite Chinese Academy of Sciences. But poor health has crippled some departments.

At the Chinese Academy of Science's Computer Institute, 69 percent of the intellectuals employed there suffered from serious chronic diseases; in the Automation Institute the number was 88 percent. A few blocks away at Beijing University's Center for Contemporary Chinese Literature, two of its seven professors died last year; both were under 60.

Over at the Beijing Academy of Sciences' Institute of Sociology, the conditions have led to a massive outflow of talent. Half the staff has left since 1990 -- some to the private sector and others to study abroad. The remaining 150 employees must share an annual research budget of $16,000.

Nationally, the brain drain has meant that only 75,000 of the 220,000 students who have left for studies abroad since 1979 have returned, according to China's Education Ministry. For example, at Qinghua University, often dubbed China's Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 60 percent of the biology department has left.

Sporadic efforts have been made to improve the lot of China's intellectuals, but for Mr. Hu, the only way out is to leave. South Korea recently offered him a teaching position for a year.

"It's a chance at least to recover my health," Mr. Hu said. "And if I can, I'll stay on."

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