Aired Oct. 15, 2003 at 8:35am during “Morning Edition” and at 5:35 during “All Things Considered”
[Intro: As China revels in its first successful manned space flight, commentator John Richard Schrock cautions that Americans may be making some wrong assumptions about the Chinese space program.]
In summer of 2001, I had been in China for a month when it was announced China would host the 2008 Olympics. The people of China were ecstatic.
So, now, today, my friends in China are again ecstatic, this time over their accomplishment in space, and yet I hear some friends in America saying "Yes, but... China is a generation behind us. Of course they stole our technology. They’re probably making the rockets with used Chrysler parts." Nothing could be further from the truth.
Few Americans realize that China’s rockets and space programs were pioneered by a brilliant student, Tsien Hsue-shen who came to study in the United States. American journalist Iris Chang wrote his biography "Thread of the Silkworm."
She describes how the brilliant young student from China won a scholarship in pre-war China to attend MIT. He completed his doctorate at CalTech, was the WWII U.S. military officer sent to de-brief Werner vonBraun in Germany, and held the Goddard Chair in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. In the midst of this success, he married the daughter of a Nationalist China Kuomintang official, and had two children. Then his life was turned upside down.
It was 1950 and the beginning of the McCarthy era witch-hunts that destroyed many scientists’ careers. Based on little more than math table books that were mistaken for code books, and minimal hearsay, Tsien was placed under house arrest in California for five years as a suspected Communist. In 1955, he and his family were deported back to a now-Communist China.
China’s Premier Chou Enlai was eager to get him; and it is fair to say he became China’s equivalent of our Wehrner von Braun. He became the father of China’s rocket systems: the East Wind, the notoriously effective Silkworm, and their early ICBM’s that were scaled up to become the current boosters.
China did not have to steal from us; it had a parallel program because we gave them their best rocket scientist.
In the United States, we tend to think that McCarthy era witch-hunts are behind us. However, the treatment of Wen Ho-Lee in the 1990s exposed enough anti-Asian feeling that a large number of Taiwan
scientists packed up their US passports and families and returned to Taiwan. The resulting Cox Report on national security re-asserted the old baseless spying charges against Tsien Hsue-shen and cited Iris Chang’s biography, a citation that Mrs. Chang has rightly protested.
So what should we think about China’s new space program? Tsien has lived into the new millenium to see the next generation of his rockets launch China into manned orbit. Perhaps we should be glad for them, especially if we want to see any continuation of manned space exploration. With over one-half of U.S. engineering faculty being foreign-born, and nearly 80 percent of U.S. terminal degrees in engineering going to foreign students, we are in trouble. That is, unless China deports some of its most brilliant scientists to us.
[John Richard Schrock tag line; and finally, I left a CD of the China national anthem at KPR and they (to my surprise) concluded the on air piece with it.]