A group of Chinese-Americans is financing public libraries in towns and villages in China. The effort has led to the creation of more than 60 libraries, and is intended to bridge the gap between rich and poor in the world's most populous nation.
The project began in 1990, the year after the Tienanmen Square massacre, when the world's attention was focused on China's pro-democracy movement. Some members of the San Fernando Valley Chinese Cultural Association thought the most practical way to help the Chinese people was to promote literacy in the country's towns and villages.
"We realized that even though in China, the colleges were well-run, but only a very small proportion of people get educated, and also get into college," said Professor Kwang-Nan Chow, who teaches mathematics at California State University, Northridge, and helped form the library support group. "The majority of the Chinese population were not so educated."
He says that is especially true of the vast majority of Chinese who live outside the prosperous coastal cities.
Professor Chow and several of his colleagues decided that American-style public libraries could make a difference.
Angela Lew, a university librarian at Cal State Northridge, says the group identifies townships that need a library, and helps those where officials show real interest.
"They have to have the building. They have to provide a structure and furniture and one person to staff the library full time," she said. "And also they have to promise that they will maintain and sustain the library after our funding is over, because basically we provide only acquisition money."
Each library receives about $5,000 to buy books. So far, the organization has set up 60 libraries throughout China. Several are in the process of being established.
Ms. Lew says the U.S. group lays down general guidelines, but the Chinese library staff decides what books to buy. They are encouraged to purchase books for children, and others on practical subjects such as agriculture. The U.S. group adds some restrictions.
"No more than 20 percent should be literature, because we found some of the libraries would buy cheap bestsellers or martial arts fighting fiction, and then they rent them for pennies. And we don't want them to use our money to run a small business," Ms. Lew said.
So the organization specifies that libraries cannot charge patrons for borrowing books.
Another member of the library support group, retired mathematics professor T. P. Lin, says the institutions in China send reports describing how they have helped the local people.
"Some may say, one day a farmer came knocking at the door at midnight and said their chickens are dying off and sick and they don't know what to do. So they come in and find a book about epidemics in chicken, and they find out a cure, and they go back and eventually rescue the chicken farm," said T. P. Lin.
Much of the funding for the libraries comes from a single businessman, Fred Chau. The native of Hong Kong has been in the United States for nearly 40 years. He met the group from California State University at Northridge, and was impressed with them.
"They told me what they were doing, and I found it very touching because they were very dedicated. And I decided I will support them," he said.
In addition to providing money for book acquisitions, Mr. Chau donated funds last year to set up Internet outlets in five rural libraries in China.
"Putting in computers, and also paying for the Internet access so that the poor people or the disadvantaged students can get on the Internet and expose themselves to the whole outside world," he explained.
The Chinese-Americans involved in the library project say their work has touched only a small fraction of the hundreds of millions of people in rural China. But they say they are planting seeds, the seeds of knowledge, which are starting to bear fruit in Chinese towns and villages.