US outcast who founded missile programme

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 September, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 September, 2009, 12:00am

Qian Xuesen, also known as Tsien Hsue-shen, was one of the United States' top missile scientists before he became the subject of a five-year witch-hunt that ended with him being deported to the mainland. The system which Qian, now 98, helped put together after his return has since nurtured a nuclear power and space programme that has sent astronauts into the heavens and a probe to the moon.

In 1935, Qian left China amid warlord chaos and foreign aggression. He moved to the US where he would become a co-founder of its missile programme.

After Qian was labelled a communist in 1950, it took five years before Beijing and Washington reached a deal that would see his return to the mainland.

Mao Zedong and other communist leaders rolled out the red carpet for Qian, on whom they pinned hopes for rapid technical improvement in China's home-grown weapons industry.

Qian did not let them down.

In 1960, China successfully test-fired its first home-grown ground missile under Qian's direct stewardship. Qian also played key roles in the country's ground-breaking nuclear tests later that decade.

Qian headed the task force to manufacture and launch China's first man-made satellite, which was sent into orbit in 1970. The endeavour set the cornerstone for the country's space programme.

But his achievements in laboratories and military testing fields were overshadowed by turmoil beyond science.

In 1957, two years after Qian's return from the United States, Mao launched the Anti-Rightist Campaign, which subjected up to 550,000 students, scholars and scientists to brutal treatment, loss of jobs and removal from cities.

Perhaps out of the political pragmatism acquired in the McCarthy era, Qian jumped to the defence of the crackdown and wrote articles trumpeting its integrity and necessity. This 'political correctness', as well as his irreplaceable stature in China's nascent missile programme, secured his survival.

Despite the highly unethical practices, Qian has been held in high regard by generations of leaders for his contribution to the country's rise to the elite club of military powers.