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The unrest in Beijing has put the lives of tens of thousands of Chinese students and scholars in this country in limbo, and even the children of the elite fear they must turn away from their homeland.

"If China becomes a democratic country, I will go back," said Qian Songnian, a theoreticial physicist at Dartmouth College. "But in this situation, certainly not."Chinese students began arriving in the United States in small numbers in the years after President Nixon's visit to China. The first large exchanges began in 1978, said Huang Zhengdong, a Yale University law student who heads a semiofficial organization of Chinese students in the United States.

The figure of 40,000 Chinese students now in the United States is quoted by such groups as the Returned Student Association in Beijing. But the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service said a recent computer check found 73,000 Chinese with active student visas.

The Returned Student Association says there are an additional 40,000 Chinese students in countries other than the United States.

The majority here are graduate students in science, engineering and mathematics, mostly at major universities. And many are the sons and daughters of China leaders.

California universities are the top U.S. draw, with more than 10,000 Chinese students, followed by New York, Texas, Illinois and Massachusetts, according to the INS.

A total of 320,000 Chinese nationals are now in the United States, INS spokesman Greg Leo said. Following the crackdown, Attorney General Richard Thornburgh announced that all will be permitted to stay for at least one year.

Though the students here are among the best and the brightest of China, few are sponsored by their government.

By one estimate, only 2,000 to 3,000 students receive full government scholarships. Most graduate students are funded by their host universities.

While official People's Republic of China media are condemning the outbreak of "Western bourgeois liberalism," it has been fashionable for China's elite to send its sons and daughters to study abroad where they are exposed to such ideas.

As students wrestle with whether to return home, their government's scrutiny has taken on a more ominous tone.

Huang said he saw someone videotaping the pro-democracy demonstration June 5 he helped organize in New York City. He said he was warned through intermediaries "not to go too far," and his letters have arrived opened.

Huang, asked if he would return, only laughed.

"My picture and my image (are) on CNN and newspapers," he said. "So certainly this is not the right time to go back."