Educational Trips to China Canceled; Future Exchange Efforts Said in Doubt

By Peter Schmidt — June 14, 1989 6 min read

“People who are interested in China and the Chinese language really want to be over there,” Ms. Fountain said. “It’s one of the most interesting historical experiences you could be part of. It’s life-threatening, but it’s educational.”

No U.S. students or teachers were reported by the officials to have been among the hundreds, and possibly thousands, of dead and wounded in the violence, officials of exchange organizations said.

But amid the reports of Chinese civilians being shot or overrun by tanks and rumors that segments of the army were preparing to assault universities, most officials said they were canceling plans to send secondary-school students and educators to China this summer.

Most of the program administrators said they remained hopeful that their hard-won links with China could be restored once stability returned. But they acknowledged that those links were at the mercy of rapidly changing events in Beijing and the American government’s reaction to them.

“There was no preparing for this because it has stretched beyond any of our wildest dreams,” said Scott D. Ramey, a spokeman for a.f.s. Intercultural Programs, which spent much of last week trying to contact the 28 students and teachers it had sent to China to assist them in leaving the country.

By midweek, officials at a.f.s., formerly known as the American Field Service, also said the organization had made a “calm and measured” decision to suspend all of its programs in China, including a planned trip for 130 precollegiate teachers at the end of June.

“We are very disappointed to have to do it,” Mr. Ramey said. “The safety of our participants is our number one concern. We could not send participants with this type of unrest going on.”

“It is devastating to us,” said Robert M. Leeds, executive director of the U.S.-China Peoples Friendship Association.

“We obviously are deeply saddened by the violence and profoundly affected on a deeply personal level because we’ve personally dealt with thousands of Chinese students, teachers, educators, and scholars since 1972, and they are at the heart of this,” Mr. Leeds said.

Most From Universities

Over all, few American high-school students were in China when the violence erupted, exchange officials said, because it is difficult for them to be enrolled in Chinese schools year round, and most visit the country only on summer tours.

The overwhelming majority of American students in China were reported to have come from colleges and universities.

Spokesmen for the U.S. State Department’s bureau of East Asian and Pacific affairs last week estimated that 8,000 Americans were in China when the violence began, including 270 students and 600 tourists in Beijing and an additional 110 students and 4,600 tourists elsewhere in China.

“It is difficult to assess what kind of danger they are in,” said Alexander Almasov, a department spokesman.

By midweek, dependents of U.S. official personnel were being ordered to leave China and other American citizens were being strongly urged to leave without delay.

About 50 percent of the American students in China had declined to be evacuated, while about 55 teachers and students had been transported by the U.S. Embassy to the airport, the State Department reported.

Statistics on the exact number of Americans teaching in China were unavailable. “Our primary concern is our teachers on the front line,” said Mr. Ramey, who was keeping tabs on two high-school teachers that the a.f.s. had sent to Beijing.

‘They Can Only Hope’

Many U.S. organizations said their exchange partners in China--with whom virtually all said they had enjoyed excellent relations--encouraged the evacuation of Americans and the cancellation of summer trips in order to protect those involved.

“They have no clue when this will be over and they can only hope things will return to normal,” said Jennifer W. Fountain, director of programs in China for the American Institute for Foreign Study, which plans China trips for high-school students and teachers.

“They have a sense of powerlessness,” Ms. Fountain said. “They want to maintain relations with the United States but they do not know how things will be going.”

Student, Teacher Trips Halted

Ms. Fountain said her organization had planned to send 250 precollegiate teachers and students to China this summer, but most were canceling their trips.

Mr. Leeds of the U.S.-China Peoples Friendship Association said his organization responded to the dangers of travel in China by canceling a June 25 trip planned for 24 high-school students. The group opted instead to take the students on a tour of Hong Kong and other Pacific Rim cities with close economic ties to the People’s Republic.

Other organizations that canceled summer trips to China included the Council on International Educational Exchange, which had planned trips for 10 students and 14 secondary-school educators, and the International Christian Youth Exchange. That group had planned to send students and volunteers to China in July and instead was working last week to retrieve four recentel15lhigh-school graduates who had retreated to Hong Kong.

“At the moment, you can’t find anyone [in China] to do business with,” said Lance R. Odden, headmaster of the Taft School in Watertown, Conn., which postponed a student-faculty trip that had been scheduled to depart last Sunday.

Sister Cities International, which has linked to China about 40 U.S. cities that frequently send over delegations of teachers and students, issued a statement urging the cancellation of any cultural exchanges with China planned for the near future.

The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, which had entered a three-year agreement with the Chinese government to help strengthen the higher-education systems in both countries, had to cancel a trip just before the violence because the student protests made it difficult to visit universities.

Hopes and Worries

Many exchange organizations last week also were tending to the needs of Chinese nationals who had traveled to the United States.

Stephen H. Rhinesmith, president of the a.f.s., said his group was contacting Chinese teachers here under the the organization’s auspices ''to evaluate their emotional well-being and to share any information we have gathered.”

Maria C. Ramirez, executive director of the New York State Department of Education’s Center for Multi-national and Comparative Education, said she was still counting on the arrival of 40 Chinese secondary-school students in September because such exchanges “would benefit whatever group comes into power.”

But Mr. Odden of the Taft School, who is a student of Chinese history, said he expected the flow of Chinese students to his campus to be stemmed if hard-liners come to power because many of the student protesters learned their ideas from the West.

Ms. Fountain of the American Institute for Foreign Study predicted that the victory of hard-liners in the Chinese power struggle would lead to purges of students there, and “being a student of any nationality would not be a safe thing.”

But she added that the situation has not discouraged many from wanting to travel there and may even have heightened interest.

“People who are interested in China and the Chinese language really want to be over there,” Ms. Fountain said. “It’s one of the most interesting historical experiences you could be part of. It’s life-threatening, but it’s educational.”