When Chinese student Che Shaoli called a news conference in New York to press for the release of her husband from a Shanghai jail, she was exercising a new-found freedom. Her husband, Yang Wei, also educated in the United States, was one of the demonstrators arrested in China's recent crackdown on political dissent. Ms. Che demanded that Chinese authorities either prove Mr. Yang's alleged ``counterrevolutionary crime'' and grant him a fair trial or free him.
Emboldened by life in the West, Che and other Chinese nationals studying here are speaking out for the first time, urging Peking to halt a growing ideological backlash against proponents of political and economic reform.
Thousands of young Chinese, many of whom lost faith in Marxism during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), have come to the US in recent years. The number has grown rapidly to some 19,000 in the US and Canada from around 3,000 in 1979, when Peking and Washington established formal diplomatic relations.
In past generations, Chinese students overseas have helped shape revolutionary change in China - bringing back reformist ambitions from Japan in the early 1900s, Marxism from Western Europe in the 1920s, and the tools of state socialism from the Soviet Union in the 1950s. Chinese students of the 1980s are returning home from the US familiar with American capitalism and democracy and ways to promote them.
Chinese authorities disliked the political convictions Yang took back last year, along with his master's degree in molecular biology from the University of Arizona. After taking part in the Shanghai student demonstrations in December, Yang was arrested by public security officers Jan. 11. So Che, who left China for the first time last November, decided to agitate on her husband's behalf.
``I couldn't get any information about him so I was quite concerned,'' said Che, a PhD candidate in microbiology at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas. ``I decided I had to talk to the press - there was no better way. If they tell me what crime he committed and give him a fair trial and a reasonable time in jail, then I won't make any more trouble for them,'' she said.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee members Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina and Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana lodged separate inquiries about Yang's case with the State Department and the Chinese Embassy in Washington last week.
Senator Helms also set forth a draft resolution that would grant extended stays in the US to Chinese students likely to face persecution at home for their political views. The Chinese Embassy in Washington issued a statement condemning the draft resolution as ``interference in China's internal politics.''
Those vulnerable include Che and 1,700 other Chinese students who have publicly condemned the attacks on intellectuals accompanying Peking's mounting campaign against ``total Westernization'' and ``bourgeois liberalization.'' The students, attending 107 US and Canadian universities, recently endorsed an unprecedented open letter to the Peking leadership criticizing the campaign.
The letter, delivered to the Chinese consulate in New York Jan. 19, expressed the students' ``deep anxiety'' over the abrupt dismissal of Communist Party chief Hu Yaobang last month and the disciplining of three prominent Chinese intellectuals. The four were popular among students for promoting economic reform, a more open political system, and greater intellectual freedom.
``We feel that the ultra-leftist practice of labeling people arbitrarily and finding fault with others has redominated the area of communication, cultures, and ideology,'' the students' letter read. ``We fear the recurrence of the political situation of the Cultural Revolution.... If this continues, the economic and political reforms of China will be ruined.''
The letter, believed to be the first such protest by Chinese students in the US, symbolizes an increasing willingness to defy government controls that hamper their efforts to remold China's still rigid and xenophobic society.
Part of this new defiance, the students say, has sprung from living in the US and enjoying the political freedoms and economic efficiency of a modern Western society for the first time.
``Before in China, it was strict obedience to my father, to the party, to the country,'' said Zhu Mingwei, a graduate student of international relations at Columbia University. ``In the United States, you grow up in an environment where creative thinking is encouraged,'' said Mr. Zhu, who asked that his real name be withheld.
``From the point of view of the [Chinese] leadership, this is a very alarming phenomenon, says Andrew Nathan, a political science professor at Columbia. ``People going back can argue very effectively that only with a more democratic system and a capitalist economy can China be modernized.''
Specific changes Chinese students here seek are:
A narrowing of the Communist Party's administrative power and a clearer line of demarcation between party and government authority.
More democratic, multicandidate elections with secret balloting.
The implementation of freedom of speech and the press guaranteed by China's Constitution.
Many of the students also want greater openness and flexibility in Peking's foreign relations. They say the anti-Western tone of the current crackdown illustrates how China, unlike Japan and Hong Kong, has attempted to bar Western culture and liberalism at the cost of potentially valuable economic, scientific, and military ties.
All of the students interviewed said they wanted to return to China eventually, but some said that if the crackdown continues they will try to prolong their stay here. Of the letter's 1,700 endorsers, 702 actually signed their names.
An article in Friday's Monitor on Chinese students incorrectly stated that there are some 19,000 of them in the United States and Canada. In fact, the figure of 19,000 applies only to the US.