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Study abroad, then and now

2014-09-19 14:01 Xinhua Web Editor: Mo Hong'e

Watching the TV series featuring China's late leader Deng Xiaoping and China's historic reform, Liu Baicheng could not help shedding some tears.

They were tears of joy as Liu, one of 52 students sent to the United States to study among China's first group of visiting scholars, re-lived the life changing moment brought on by Deng's effort to negotiate with American representatives 35 years ago.

"The two-year study not only changed my own life, but led me on a path to science and research," Liu said.

In the following 30 years, Liu, now 81, would lead his team to establish China's first research program in computer material engineering. Combining information technology and the material process, a field that set the foundation for developing the country's modern manufacturing industry.

According to the figures from the China Scholarship Council, the number of government-funded students abroad exceeded 167,000 across 100 countries since China's opening up in 1978.

The returnees, who have brought back skills in energy, mining, environment, agriculture and other high-demand sectors, play vital roles in the construction of the country. Like Liu, many of them have set up new research fields, which were greatly devastated in the 10-year-long Cultural Revolution.


Liu remembers the shock of seeing hundreds of cars zipping along an expressway as he landed at New York airport in 1979.

"At that time, cars were scarce in China. Even the busiest shopping area, Wangfujing in downtown Beijing, became quiet from 7 p.m. in the evening. I felt the huge difference with the US then," he recalled.

China's per capita gross domestic product was less than 200 US dollars in 1978, one-fiftieth of the level in the US at the time.

With the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976 disrupting much of China's education system, most visiting scholars sent abroad were middle-aged. When Liu arrived, he was 45 years old and had never seen a computer.

The moment he saw his landlord's third-grade son playing with an Apple computer, he was once again astonished, believing machines could change scientific development, as well as the progress of human society.

He decided to learn FORTRAN, then one of the most senior computer programming languages, working more than 12 hours until 3 to 4 a.m. every day.

While at the University of Wisconsin, he peered through a scanning electron microscope for the first time, which allowed for hundreds of times more magnification than what he used in China. "From two- to three-dimensional, I had a much more profound understanding about the mechanism of casting alloy using the advanced equipment," he said.

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