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CONTACT: Janet Basu, News Service (650) 723-7582

Chinese leader meets local physicist

Chinese President Jiang Zemin's U.S. security escorts were taking no chances after a luncheon at L.A.'s Beverly Hilton on Sunday, Nov. 2. While Jiang was whisked to his 20th-floor hotel suite, 700 other guests, including former Secretary of State Warren Christopher and L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan, were sealed in the banquet hall. When a slim, youthful-looking Chinese American made his way to the exit, security stopped him at the door.

"Here I was, waving a fax, saying I'm supposed to meet with the president in five minutes," said Stanford physicist Steve Chu.

"They said, 'The president of what?' They didn't believe me." Without intervention from a member of Jiang's entourage, the leader of a fifth of the world's population and the new Nobel laureate would have missed their chance for a private, 40-minute chat. Chu was one of a handful of people invited for individual meetings during Jiang's U.S. visit; others included evangelist Billy Graham and computer mogul Charles B. Wang.

"As with other leaders, he liked to talk. So I listened," Chu said of the conversation. Jiang talked about his early career as an engineer, and commented on his visits to industrial laboratories at IBM, AT&T and Hughes Aircraft. "He was struck by how many scientists and engineers in those labs are Asian. I told him that is one of China's greatest exports, the people who have gone abroad and contributed to the scholarship of the U.S."

They also discussed China's university system. Chu said that professors there are government employees whose salary and perquisites are based on years of service. He suggested a gradual change in this system: "Just as Jiang is introducing incentives in the economic sector ­ they don't call it capitalism but incentives to encourage people to do their best ­ in U.S. universities [salary differentials based on merit] encourage people to work harder. I said in China, you couldn't do this for people who are in their 50s or 60s, but you could think of doing it for young people. For those just entering, you could say these are the new rules."

Chu, born in St. Louis to parents who immigrated from China in the 1940s, has drawn the line with reporters who want him to comment on politics in Asia, though he has said he is willing to learn about, and discuss, science and education policy. "Winning the Nobel does not make me a political expert," he says.

Chu is the fifth Nobel laureate of Chinese ancestry; the others include three physicists and his friend, former University of California-Berkeley chemist Yuan Lee, who now heads Taiwan's leading research institute, the Academica Sinica. Last June, Chu and his predecessor Nobelists were part of a small group of scientists who met with Jiang in Beijing for a half-hour discussion about the future of basic research, applied research and technology in China.

On Sunday, the conversation was held entirely in English, with an interpreter providing only occasional assistance. Jiang is said to be fluent in several languages, and told Chu that when he was working as an engineer in Romania, he gave up depending on his translator and taught himself Romanian from a book.

At the end of the conversation Jiang invited Chu to visit China again. "I said, OK, that would be wonderful," Chu said. "If you teach me Chinese, I'll teach you experimental physics."


By Janet Basu

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