Vacationing scholars a waste of tax yuan

Source:Global Times Published: 2010-9-6 21:40:00

Illustration: Liu Rui

By Jocelyn Eikenburg

At the US university apartment complex where I live, I often run into Wang (not her real name), a Chinese neighbor of mine. She only works half days at the university, and spends her afternoons in leisure, sometimes even watching her preschool-age daughter, who she brought over here with her, toddle around the playground in front of the place we live.

Wang whiles away the evenings watching movies, and weekends in activities with the local Chinese Christian church. Wang's mother-in-law even joined her for the summer, ostensibly to help with the child care, but not without enjoying a jaunt to Las Vegas and Disneyland.

Most days, Wang has the kind of carefree, joyous air about her that belies her nominal reason for coming to the US, to be a visiting scholar. Scholarly exchange is a long and honorable tradition, going back to the earliest universities. Visiting scholars are usually expected either to teach, thus bringing some of their own unique background and academic knowledge to the institution, or to use the chance to do serious research with the facilities available at their host university.

Wang is not engaged in any of the rigorous teaching, lecturing or research that you would expect of a visiting scholar. She fills her mornings doing little more than the work of an undergraduate research assistant, such as organizing data or other clerical tasks. She has no supervisor in the US or China requiring her to produce, say, a scholarly paper for publication. She even invited her child and mother-in-law to live with her, something no serious visiting scholar would ever do, lest they be distracted from their studies.

Instead, you might call Wang a "vacationing scholar," someone who travels under the guise of scholarly work, in order to enjoy a holiday abroad. Wang doesn't deny it, either. Once, she confessed to me that her time in the US is like a comfortable respite from life in China.

Wang, however, isn't the only one I've met. There's Zhang, whose greatest achieve-ment during his year at the university was bringing his daughter with him to "experience life in the US." Then there was Zhou, who has no requirements or goals for her six-month stay beyond writing about her impressions of the experience, and is more worried about how to gamble away her free time on trips to places such as Las Vegas and California.

There's nothing wrong with taking a vacation. But there's something very wrong with labeling a vacation abroad as scholarly work, and funding it with taxpayer dollars.

China sends more than 5,000 visiting scholars abroad every year, each with a stipend equivalent to 150,000 yuan ($22,150) per year. If every scholar just visits to vacation, that's an annual waste of more than 750 million yuan.

Wang receives public money from China to fritter away her days in the US, but the Chinese public will receive nothing in return for her time overseas, unless, of course, Wang gives a public exhibition of her photos from the US. Just think of what China could have done with that funding: increase teacher salaries, build more schools, or support serious research and scholarship.

What a contrast to the US.

American visiting scholar programs such as Fulbright require participants to submit periodic and final reports, and sign a contract promising to fulfill their responsibilities abroad, which could range from teaching to research. Any Fulbright scholar who fails to meet the requirements could lose their funding.

Even my Chinese husband, who is working on his PhD at the same American university where Wang "vacations," faces scrutiny for his scholarship money. He has to maintain a minimum 3.0 grade point average and undergo a departmental evaluation every semester. Just think if Wang had to demonstrate she earned every single yuan for her time here in the US. She wouldn't even be here. No self-respecting "vacationing scholar" would be serious enough to face real accountability.

The author is a freelance writer based in Cleveland, Ohio. viewpoint@globaltimes.

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