A force for change in China; Students: Sensing the importance of the moment, many who left to study overseas are returning to give their homeland a chance.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

BEIJING -- The China that Zhang Wei returned to last year after a decade in the United States barely resembles the one she left behind as a high school student in the summer of 1989.

Then, the country was in tatters. Soldiers had gunned down hundreds, perhaps thousands, to crush the Tiananmen Square democracy movement. Most college students faced a bleak future in government jobs assigned by the Communist Party.

But 10 years later, with a degree from Harvard Business School, Zhang returned in August to a nation that -- while still ironfisted when it comes to politics -- offers its people more personal freedom and economic opportunity than at any other time in its history.

She works for Rupert Murdoch's NewsCorp, where she evaluates investment opportunities in Chinese start-ups and helps develop entertainment products such as Channel V, Asia's top music video channel.

When Zhang has time, she works out at a new health club where the treadmills have personal TV sets. Downstairs in the lobby of her office building, she enjoys a hazelnut coffee at Starbucks.

Ten years ago, such a lifestyle was unimaginable.

"China is developing so fast, I didn't want to miss out on the opportunities," says Zhang, who is in her late 20s and is also host of an "Oprah"-like current affairs program on Beijing Satellite TV. "It's nice to be a part of the action."

Many Chinese who have studied overseas feel the same way. Of the dozen mainlanders in Zhang's class at Harvard, half have returned, she says. Most are working for Internet start-ups.

Since Deng Xiaoping opened China to the West in the 1970s, more than 320,000 students have gone overseas for school. Now accustomed to free speech and single-family homes, most refuse to return. But in recent years, more and more have decided to give their homeland a chance. The myriad reasons include family, patriotism -- even cuisine. But what seems to unite most is a sense that an important moment is at hand.

With Beijing pledging to enter the World Trade Organization and the Internet's explosive growth here likely to accelerate already rapid social change, many students see an opportunity to help shape the nation China will become. And perhaps make a fortune in the process.

Record returnees

David Zweig, an associate professor at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, has written a book about China's brain drain. He says the current group of returnees is the largest since overseas Chinese fled unrest in Indonesia more than three decades ago.

In 1998, the last year for which figures are available, 7,379 students came back -- up from 1,593 in 1990.

If the trend continues, it could have a significant impact. As more students return from schools such as Harvard and Stanford, they bring with them the concepts of democracy, human rights and the rule of law -- precious commodities that could aid China in its transformation from an authoritarian state to a more stable and civil society.

The Communist Party -- now largely Communist in name only -- recognizes that the development of its emerging market economy depends in part on luring back the best and brightest.

Just as U.S. states compete with each other for companies and jobs, many Chinese cities offer rent subsidies, tax breaks and other incentives to entice overseas students to set up firms in their local development zones.

Not far from Beijing's new international airport lies Pioneering Park. Inside one of its nondescript buildings, gene sequencing machines hum and a scoreboard tallies the number of base pairs of DNA analyzed the day before.

The building is home to a nonprofit company set up by overseas Chinese professors as part of the Human Genome Project. The laboratory is helping to sequence 1 percent of the human genome as part of an international mapping effort.

To win the prestige project, the park offered to help staff find local housing and register their business. The park's management even arranged for a low-priced catering service, which provides everything from steak to cookies, 24 hours a day.

Liu Siqi, 45, an assistant professor at the University of Louisville's Department of Medicine, is one of the principal scientists on the project. Perks aside, he says he was drawn by the opportunity to improve bio-tech research in his homeland and spin off commercial products that could make a big difference here.

China, for instance, must still buy expensive antigens from overseas for its AIDS tests. Liu, who began coming back in 1997, hopes gene research will lead China to develop a cheaper and more accurate AIDS test that could be used more widely around the country.

"It's a great opportunity for Chinese scientists," says Yu Jun, a research scientist at the University of Washington's Human Genome Center and one of the men behind the Beijing project. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing."

Four decades ago, the Communist system did not reward China's brightest scholars with rent subsidies and tax breaks. Instead, it often banished them to the countryside or inspired Red Guards to beat them to death.

During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), some people were so desperate to leave that they clung to the bottom of railroad cars or tried the perilous swim to the then-British colony of Hong Kong.

Neng Liang, a professor of business at Baltimore's Loyola College, spent six years farming wheat and rice along the Yangtze River when he should have been in high school and college. Afterward, against the odds, he cobbled together an education and won a Fulbright Scholarship to the United States in 1984.

Sixteen years later, he is back in China serving as a dean of a joint-MBA program sponsored by Beijing University, Loyola and 25 other U.S. Jesuit schools

Splitting his time between Beijing and Baltimore, he lives globalization. Liang's students at Loyola have helped Chinese firms research opportunities in the United Sates and competed with his Chinese students in computer simulation games.

He is editing what would be the first Chinese text on how to conduct business case studies. In a country where people often copy the latest fad with no market research, such a book could save a fortune in bad investment.

'Best of both worlds'

"There are so many things to do here," Liang says excitedly as he sits in his cramped office in Haidian, the university district in northwest Beijing. "It really allows me to combine the best of both worlds."

Despite marked progress in China, coming back has its drawbacks. Those include air pollution, chaotic traffic, sidewalk spitting and occasional barbs from jealous colleagues who've never studied abroad. Like many returning Chinese, Liang says he dresses down so as not to put people off and rides a bike that is so old the make is undecipherable.

"If someone sees me on the street, they can't tell I have an overseas background," says Liang, 48, who wears a gray sweater vest beneath his suit jacket.

While returning students and scholars are walking advertisements for China's economic development, their number remains minuscule within the country's population of 1.2 billion. And it's easy to overestimate their influence in a nation where most people live in the countryside and the urban-rural income gap is widening.

For each woman such as Zhang Wei who returns to a multimedia job in Beijing, dozens of peasants risk their lives to stow away on freighters bound for the United States. A large cafe mocha at Starbucks in Beijing costs $3.25, more than most Chinese farmers earn in a day.

Still, many observers see returning students as one of the best hopes for developing a more stable and pluralistic China. Whether implementing ideas or passing on experiences from abroad, they will continue -- often quietly -- to push the limits here.

As host of "Common Ground," Zhang has dealt with sensitive subjects such as AIDS and drugs. When asked how long she plans to stay in China, the answer is upbeat.

"Indefinitely," she says.

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