China’s path to modernization has, for centuries, gone through my hometown

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In 1957, Yang and Tsung-Dao Lee, a fellow Chinese graduate of the University of Chicago, won the Nobel Prize for proposing that when some elementary particles decay, they do so in a way that distinguishes left from right. They were the first Chinese laureates. Speaking at the Nobel banquet, Yang noted that the prize had first been awarded in 1901, the same year as the Boxer Protocol. “As I stand here today and tell you about these, I am heavy with an awareness of the fact that I am in more than one sense a product of both the Chinese and Western cultures, in harmony and in conflict,” he said.

Yang became a US citizen in 1964 and moved to Stony Brook University on Long Island in 1966 as the founding director of its Institute for Theoretical Physics, which was later named after him. As the relationship between the US and China began to thaw, Yang visited his homeland in 1971—his first trip in a quarter of a century. A lot had changed. His father’s health was failing. The Cultural Revolution was raging, and both Western science and Chinese tradition had been deemed heresy. Many of Yang’s former colleagues, including Huang and Deng, were persecuted and forced to perform hard labor. The Nobel laureate, on the other hand, was received like a foreign dignitary. He met with officials at the highest levels of the Chinese government and advocated for the importance of basic research. 

In the years that followed, Yang visited China regularly. At first, his trips drew attention from the FBI, which saw exchanges with Chinese scientists as suspect. But by the late 1970s, hostilities had waned. Mao Zedong was dead. The Cultural Revolution was over. Beijing adopted reforms and opening-up policies. Chinese students could go abroad for study. Yang helped raise funding for Chinese scholars to come to the US and for international experts to travel to conferences in China, where he also helped establish new research centers. When Deng Jiaxian died in 1986, Yang wrote an emotional eulogy for his friend, who had devoted his life to China’s nuclear defense. It concluded with a song from 1906, one of his father’s favorites: “[T]he sons of China, they hold the sky aloft with a single hand … The crimson never fades from their blood spilled in the sand.” 

Nobel prize winners
Yang (seated, left) with fellow Nobel Prize winners (clockwise from left) Val Fitch, James Cronin, Samuel C.C. Ting, and Isidor Isaac Rabi

ENERGY.GOV, PUBLIC DOMAIN, VIA WIKIMEDIA

Yang retired from Stony Brook in 1999 and moved back to China a few years later to teach freshman physics at Tsinghua. In 2015, he renounced his US citizenship and became a citizen of the People’s Republic of China. In an essay remembering his father, Yang recounted his earlier decision to emigrate. He wrote, “I know that until his final days, in a corner of his heart, my father never forgave me for abandoning my homeland.” 


In 2007, when he was 85 years old, Yang stopped by our hometown on an autumn day and gave a talk at my university. My roommates and I waited outside the venue hours in advance, earning precious seats in the packed auditorium. He took the stage to thunderous applause and delivered a presentation in English about his Nobel-winning work. I was a little perplexed by his choice of language. One of my roommates muttered, wondering whether Yang was too good to speak in his mother tongue. We listened attentively nevertheless, grateful to be in the same room as the great scientist. 

A college junior and physics major, I was preparing to apply to graduate school in the US. I’d been raised with the notion that the best of China would leave China. Two years after hearing Yang in person, I too enrolled at the University of Chicago. I received my PhD in 2015 and stayed in the US for postdoctoral research. 

Months before I bid farewell to my homeland, the central government launched its flagship overseas recruitment program, the Thousand Talents Plan, encouraging scientists and tech entrepreneurs to move to China with the promise of generous personal compensation and robust research funding. In the decade since, scores of similar programs have sprung up. Some, like Thousand Talents, are supported by the central government. Others are financed by local municipalities.

Beijing’s aggressive pursuit of foreign-trained talent is an indicator of the country’s new wealth and technological ambition. Though most of these programs are not exclusive to people of Chinese origin, the promotional materials routinely appeal to sentiments of national belonging, calling on the Chinese diaspora to come home. Bold red Chinese characters headlined the web page for the Thousand Talents Plan: “The motherland needs you. The motherland welcomes you. The motherland places her hope in you.” 

These days, though, the website isn’t accessible. Since 2020, mentions of the Thousand Talents Plan have largely disappeared from the Chinese internet. Though the program continues, its name is censored on search engines and forbidden in official documents in China. Since the final years of the Obama administration, the Chinese government’s overseas recruitment has come under intensifying scrutiny from US law enforcement. In 2018, the Justice Department started a China Initiative intended to combat economic espionage, with a focus on academic exchange between the two countries. The US government has also placed various restrictions on Chinese students, shortening their visas and denying access to facilities in disciplines deemed “sensitive.”

My mother is afraid that the borders between the US and China will be closed again as they were during the pandemic, shut down by forces just as invisible as a virus and even more deadly.

There are real problems of illicit behavior in Chinese talent programs. Earlier this year, a chemist associated with Thousand Talents was convicted in Tennessee of stealing trade secrets for BPA-free beverage can liners. A hospital researcher in Ohio pled guilty to stealing designs for exosome isolation used in medical diagnosis. Some US-based scientists failed to disclose additional income from China in federal grant proposals or on tax returns. All these are cases of individual greed or negligence. Yet the FBI considers them part of a “China threat” that demands a “whole-of-society” response. 

The Biden administration is reportedly considering changes to the China Initiative, which many science associations and civil rights groups have criticized as “racial profiling.” But no official announcements have been made. New cases have opened under Biden; restrictions on Chinese students remain in effect. 

Seen from China, the sanctions, prosecutions, and export controls imposed by the US look like continuations of foreign “bullying.” What has changed in the past 120 years is China’s status. It is now not a crumbling empire but a rising superpower. Policymakers in both countries use similar techno-nationalistic language to describe science as a tool of national greatness and scientists as strategic assets in geopolitics. Both governments are pursuing military use of technologies like quantum computing and artificial intelligence. 

“We do not seek conflict, but we welcome stiff competition,” National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said at the Alaska summit. Yang Jiechi responded by arguing that past confrontations between the two countries had only damaged the US, while China pulled through. 

Much of the Chinese public relishes the prospect of competing against the US. Take a popular saying of Mao’s: “Those who fall behind will get beaten up!” The expression originated from a speech by Joseph Stalin, who stressed the importance of industrialization for the Soviet Union. For the Chinese public, largely unaware of its origins, it evokes the recent past, when a weak China was plundered by foreigners. When I was little, my mother often repeated the expression at home, distilling a century of national humiliation into a personal motivation for excellence. It was only later, in adulthood, that I began to question the underlying logic: Is a competition between nations meaningful? By what metric, and to what end?