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Why China is winning the weapons race

🌈 Abstract

The article discusses the story of Qian Xuesen, a Chinese-born scientist who made significant contributions to the development of China's aerospace and missile programs after being deported from the United States in the 1950s. It explores the implications of the U.S. government's treatment of Qian and other Chinese-American scientists, and the potential consequences for the U.S. in the ongoing technological competition between the U.S. and China.

🙋 Q&A

[01] Qian Xuesen's Story

1. What was Qian Xuesen's background and early career?

  • Qian Xuesen was a Chinese-born scientist who came to the U.S. as a "Boxer Scholar" on a scholarship.
  • He had a successful career as a top defense scientist in the U.S., serving as one of the leading aeronautics experts in the American military during WWII and becoming a professor at MIT and co-founder of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
  • He was described as an "undisputed genius" by his friend and supervisor, the Hungarian-American aerospace engineer Theodore von Kármán.

2. Why was Qian Xuesen forced to leave the U.S.?

  • In 1950, Qian's security clearance was revoked due to accusations that he was socializing with American Communists, despite being married to the daughter of a prominent Chinese Nationalist.
  • He was arrested and his luggage was seized, though his allies continued to praise his talents and loyalty.
  • The U.S. government initially planned to deport Qian, but the State Department was wary of sending military experts to the Chinese Communists.

3. What happened to Qian Xuesen after he returned to China?

  • In 1955, Qian was allowed to return to China as part of a prisoner swap with the U.S.
  • Upon his return, Qian instantly became one of China's most influential military scientists, helping to establish the National Defence Ministry's 5th Institute, which later became the main contractor for China's space program.
  • Under Qian's leadership, China made rapid progress in developing its missile and nuclear weapons capabilities, including the successful test of a nuclear warhead mounted on a ballistic missile in 1966.

[02] Implications and Lessons

1. How did the U.S. government's treatment of Qian Xuesen impact China's technological development?

  • The U.S. government's decision to hound Qian out of the country allowed China to gain a leading military scientist, who then helped establish China's aerospace and missile programs.
  • This was a "tragic blunder" by the U.S., as China's nuclear and missile capabilities were developed much earlier than they would have been if Qian had remained in the U.S.

2. What are the potential consequences of the U.S. losing Chinese scientific talent?

  • There is a risk that brilliant Chinese-American scientists will be driven into the arms of the Chinese government, as the U.S. government's actions towards Qian and more recent initiatives like the "China Initiative" have created an atmosphere of hostility and distrust.
  • This could undermine the U.S.'s ability to attract and retain top Chinese scientific talent, which is crucial in the ongoing technological competition between the U.S. and China.

3. What lessons should the U.S. learn from the Qian Xuesen case?

  • The U.S. should avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, where the paranoia and hysteria of the McCarthy era led to the loss of a brilliant scientist who could have made significant contributions to the U.S. space program.
  • The U.S. needs to strike a balance between protecting national security and fostering an environment that welcomes and retains top scientific talent, regardless of their ethnic or national origin.
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