Now locked in head-on rivalry, the US once helped China kick-start its science and technology ambitions
- After approval from President Jimmy Carter, 52 experts in science and technology were chosen to be among the first PRC citizens to study in the US
- What struck the scholars the most was the huge gap between China and the US when it came to research facilities
One of the darkest eras in China’s modern history, the decade-long Cultural Revolution, was a living nightmare for millions of Chinese, including three intellectuals from Beijing who later went on to study in the US as part of a programme that resulted from normalisation of Sino-US ties in 1979.
Yan Dachun recalls being beaten around the lower body with iron batons that broke one of his legs. Liu Baicheng had to move to a different city and live separately from his wife when he was forced into hard labour in a state-owned foundry, and saw his father in law driven to commit suicide. Ji Fusheng suffered public humiliation because he dared to challenge the belief that Communist Party leader Mao Zedong’s words were the absolute truth.
Towards the end of 1978, one man’s push for reforms gifted them a fate-changing opportunity. Deng Xiaoping, the late Chinese paramount leader who assumed the reins of power after Mao’s death, announced bold plans in December that year to open up the country to the rest of the world. Deng, who later declared that “science and technology are the top productive force”, agreed to allow the country’s top tech talent to go abroad to study with the intent of helping China catch up after a lost decade.
Even under Mao, China had proposed a programme called the “four modernisations” – to advance agriculture, industry, national defence, and science and technology – but its implementation stalled during the Cultural Revolution. Despite the chaos of that period, China’s first satellite was launched in 1970 but it was not until after Mao’s death in 1976 that Deng was able to start moving the country towards true modernisation.
After receiving approval from US President Jimmy Carter, who had restored diplomatic relations with China on January 1, 1979, a group of 52 experts in science and technology were chosen to be among the first Chinese citizens to study in the US since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.
Deng’s strategy proved successful as most of the intellectuals, then middle-aged, returned home to help rebuild the country as they had promised the government, after two or three years as visiting scholars at top American institutions.
The three persecuted intellectuals were among the chosen ones. Yan’s wind tunnel expertise at Peking University had contributed to development of China’s first fighter jets, Liu taught mechanical engineering at Tsinghua University, and Ji Fusheng was an engineer with a state-run factory building microwave communications devices. Upon their return from studies in the US, they played key roles in China’s hi-tech development over the past few decades, while Liu was invited to be an adviser for the Made in China 2025 strategy.
As the 40th anniversary of Deng’s reforms approaches, the South China Morning Post travelled to Beijing to interview the three scientists, now in their seventies and eighties.
Their personal stories are a reflection of how educational exchanges – especially with the US – have helped China transform from a poor and backward nation into a rising tech superpower over the past decades. That trend is now moving in the other direction with the Trump administration, increasingly worried about Beijing’s tech ambitions in areas from artificial intelligence to quantum computing, imposing limits on the visas issued to Chinese students studying certain science and technology subjects in the US.
In detailed interviews, the three scholars recalled their time in the US, highlighting cultural shocks, struggles in advancing their research, and sometimes mistrust from American intelligence agents who were keeping a close eye on the exchange programme which, after all, was partly political in nature. It came just days before the establishment of diplomatic ties between the two countries, and ahead of a state visit to Washington by Deng.
“Deng Xiaoping brought spring to the intellectuals. If not for his reform and opening up, I wouldn’t be able to go abroad,” said Liu.
During the Cultural Revolution – when schools and universities were closed – intellectuals like Liu were denounced as enemies of the Communist Party, along with capitalists and landlords. Liu worked at Tsinghua’s foundry by day and read academic papers in the university library by night. His perseverance paid off when he was invited to participate in the massive state-sponsored exchange programmes that were a key part of Deng’s reforms.
“It is one of the important ways to improve the level of our country’s development, which will pay off in five years,” Deng said in June 1978 during a meeting with officials, including then-education minister Liu Xiyao, and almost a year after Beijing restored the national college entrance exam.
“We need to send tens of thousands [of students], not just several,” Deng said, according to historical records of the Communist Party.
China’s education ministry quickly came up with a plan. In September 1978, about 10,000 candidates from across the country attended a foreign-language test for the overseas study programme. One third of them passed and of those, 700 to 800 were shortlisted for potential study in the US.
After more screenings, including interviews about their particular areas of research, the top 50 candidates were selected as the first batch of students to go abroad.
The timing was right. After decades of frostiness, China and the US had started to engage with “ping pong diplomacy” in the early 1970s. The April 1971 visit to China by a team of US ping pong players paved the way for Richard Nixon’s visit the following year, the first by a sitting US president.
About a year later, the two countries established liaison offices in each other’s capitals in a step towards formal diplomatic ties. Against this backdrop of warming relations, Beijing dispatched Zhou Peiyuan, then-president of Peking University, in October 1978 as its envoy to Washington to discuss plans for student exchanges.
The first group of 50 Chinese scholars were mostly hand-picked from Beijing’s top institutions including Peking University, Tsinghua University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Later the central government allowed two well-respected maths professors from Peking University to join them, without the need to undergo the screening tests.
On the evening of December 26, 1978, the 46 men and 6 women bid farewell to their families, and in some cases, their newly born children. From Beijing they flew to Paris then transferred to another flight for New York City. Each carried a suitcase with two suits and an overcoat that the government had tailor-made for them, according to accounts of the programme published as articles and a book by veteran journalist Qian Jiang.
Upon their arrival at John F. Kennedy Airport, Wu Baozhen, a gynaecologist and the most fluent English speaker among the group, was asked to deliver a short speech to the waiting American news media. Liu, as the designated leader of the group, had crafted the last two lines in the announcement.
“Chinese people is [sic] great people, and American people is [sic] also great people. We come to the United States not only to study the advanced science and technology, but also to promote the friendship between our two peoples,” said Liu, reciting the English word-for-word all these years later.
Liu said he chose the words carefully, making sure the statement referred to two “peoples” rather than two “countries”. After all, he explained, China had vowed to overthrow American imperialism in the not so distant past.
In the years to come, the Chinese government would sponsor more scholars to study in the US as well as other industrial powerhouses like Germany and Japan. Today, there are more than 600,000 Chinese citizens studying abroad, according to the country’s education ministry.
On January 28, 1979, Deng, then China’s vice-premier, made a historic visit to the US following the establishment of diplomatic ties between the two countries. Among the crowds welcoming him at the South Lawn of the White House the following day were most of the 52 Chinese scholars.
At the time, 48 of the 52 scholars were required to take intensive English lessons for up to three months before they left Washington DC for their respective universities. As The New York Times observed, “Their knowledge of English now ranges from excellent to minimal.” But it turned out that language was only a small part of the difficulties they faced in adapting to American society, the three scholars said in interviews with the Post.
Yan, the wind turbulence expert, spent his first year at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where he saw churches put up posters warning against Chinese influence, denounced as “red storms”. During his stay in Baltimore he received two calls from the FBI as part of the US government’s monitoring of the visiting students.
In the summer of 1980, Yan was transferred to the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA), living in a neighbourhood dominated by Mexican and African-Americans. He recalled that on one night, when he was walking down the street alone, a black man grabbed him by the shoulder and asked if he had kung fu skills. To shoo the man away Yan made up a story that he knew the “dragon fist” style of fighting.
What struck the three scholars the most was the huge gap between China and the US when it came to the research facilities. Ji, the factory engineer, said the same electronic components he could easily order by phone at Cornell University took hours of riding around on a bicycle to find in Beijing.
Liu said that the preteen son of his landlord in Madison, Wisconsin owned a computer – one of the first the Chinese scholar had ever seen. To catch up on the technology, Liu signed up for basic coding classes with undergraduates at the University of Wisconsin, where he was assigned. In his second year in the US, Liu asked for a transfer to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology so he could study metal solidification.
“You get to do whatever you want at US laboratories,” Yan added.
Living on a monthly stipend of around US$400 from their government, the Chinese scholars tried to make the most of their American education. Ji worked six-and-a-half days a week, only taking Sunday afternoons off to wash his clothes at home. Liu burned the midnight oil at the computer lab in Wisconsin doing his coding assignments.
Yan extended his stay from two years to three years and eight months, and ended up studying at three universities to finish his research, as the top US experts in turbulence were at three different institutions. “If I didn’t make any achievements I would be too ashamed to go back home and see my countrymen,” said Yan.
With the pressure on to overachieve, tensions boiled over at times. During his last year at UCLA, Yan quarrelled with a Chinese scholar who had arrived in a later group. The newcomer pressed Yan over his extended stay and pressed him to return home so someone else could finish his research.
One day, when Yan was conducting an experiment in an anechoic chamber he was locked in the room, which was soundproof. “There was nothing I could do about it. No food or water. I just lay there and waited,” he said. Almost a full day later, Yan Dachun found the door had been unlocked and he was able to leave.
“I can’t say it was him,” Yan said, referring to the Chinese scholar he argued with. But after this episode he decided to keep to himself. “I do my job, he does his,” he said.
On another occasion, Yan saved a fellow Chinese scholar who tried to commit suicide. “Leave me alone. You must let me die,” Yan remembered his compatriot yelling, after finding him at home with cuts to his throat and head. Yan grabbed some duct tape to stop the bleeding and sought help from forensic students at the university.
He told the Post he did not want to call the police for fear of embarrassing the visiting students. In the end, the man survived and was taken to a hospital in San Francisco for treatment.
When their US stay came to an end, the scholars did not want to hang around any longer than necessary. At Madison, Liu was often invited to give speeches to the local primary and secondary school students. Once a high school student asked if he would like to stay in the US, to which he replied, quoting the lyrics of a 19th century American song he had learned as a teenager in Shanghai, “Home, home! Sweet, sweet home! There's no place like home.”
Liu returned to Tsinghua and became one of China’s pioneers in developing numeric simulation models and tools. His patented software helped build a crucial water turbine for the Three Gorges Dam project. In 1999 Liu was inducted into the Chinese Academy of Engineering, the highest honour in the field of engineering science in China
In 2014 the government recruited him as one of the expert consultants who contributed to the “Made in China 2025” industrial master plan, which was announced in May 2015. The plan aims to shift China’s economy into higher value-added manufacturing sectors and lessen its dependency on imported technology.
Ji worked as a senior official for China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology from 1985 to 1999, where he was responsible for allocating 10 billion yuan in funding for China’s 863 programme, which was launched in March 1986 after getting the nod from paramount leader Deng.
The 15-year-long programme was intended to advance China’s technology ability in areas ranging from bio-tech and agricultural technology to IT and advanced manufacturing automation.
In 1983 Yan published the results of his experiments on turbulence and noise generation in a paper co-authored with his UCLA mentor John Laufer, clarifying an aspect of a widely held physics theory. Throughout the late 1980s and the early 1990s, Yan played a key role in the establishment of a turbulence laboratory at Peking University, which is now a world-class research centre in the field.
China’s tech prowess has grown rapidly over the past four decades. The country is now leading the world in technologies like telecoms, renewable power, and infrastructure engineering. At the same time, it is playing catch-up in other areas including robotics and semiconductors. China lacks the ability to produce many key electronic components and still has to rely on foreign suppliers for many hi-tech parts.
Under the “Made in China 2025” strategy that experts like Liu helped come up with, Beijing is targeting to have roughly 70 per cent of key tech components manufactured domestically by the stated deadline. Over the past year Chinese president Xi Jinping has made frequent calls for Chinese scientists to develop core technologies to reduce the country’s reliance on foreign imports.
However, such an ambitious state-backed goal has become a flashpoint in the current Sino-US trade war and, along with allegations of Chinese theft of American IP, has prompted the Trump administration to impose restrictions on American tech exports to Chinese firms and increase screening of Chinese students coming to the US for study.
Liu was annoyed at the US about-face. “What’s wrong with developing advanced technologies? If they can do that, why can’t we?” the 85-year-old said, noting that “Made in China 2025” was itself inspired by similar policies in Germany and the US.
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Liu still occasionally works from his office in Tsinghua’s Lee Shau Kee Building, which is just 900 steps away from his home, according to the health app on his iPhone. Last month Liu flew to Shenzhen to attend a seminar, where he reunited with his American professor at MIT, Merton Flemings, now in his nineties, who was invited to fly over for the event.
Ji, 76, quit his job as a science magazine editor two years ago to become a Chinese grandparent helping raise the third generation. Yan, now 82, lives with his younger sister who takes care of his daily needs. His wife, who is confined to bed from illness, lives separately with their only son.
In his 2017 book, journalist Qian said at least five of the 52 Chinese scholars – including the gynecologist Wu who gave the speech at JFK airport – had passed away.
For Liu, China’s rapid rise as a tech giant has not put his mind at ease. “Don’t always say things like ‘our country is amazing’ or ‘we are taking the lead’. Just work hard,” he said, referring to state media propaganda that has since been toned down in light of the trade tensions. “We still need 30 years to catch up with the US.”