HONG KONG—Beijing is honoring a deceased Chinese scientist, often called the father of Beijing's nuclear bomb, despite his often controversial political views, according to Chinese intellectuals.
Chinese scientist Qian Xuesen died at 98, the state-run Xinhua news agency reported Oct. 31. His funeral is scheduled in Beijing on Nov. 7.
In the Xinhua obituary, Qian was referred to as an “excellent member of the Communist Party,” which he joined in 1959 after he returned from his studies in the United States.
But Chinese liberal intellectual Yang Hengjun said in an interview that Qian Xuesen harbored critical views on the future of education in China, which he expressed to Premier Wen Jiabao, who came to visit him while Qian's health was failing, according to a report by Xinhua.
“Qian Xuesen’s words were harsh—he told Wen that Chinese universities couldn’t raise first-class scientists … The reason, as we all know, is that our universities are auxiliaries to the political system, and they are heavily influenced by the political system,” Yang said.
“Qian Xuesen had always been meek to the authorities, but he finally asked a big question,” he said.
Beijing-based economist Mao Yushi said Qian was lucky to escape purging during political campaigns such as the “Anti-Rightist Movement” because of his intellectual background.
“Why he was lucky? First, he was a great scientist and second, he was assigned important duties after giving up his job in the United States and returning to China,” Mao said.
“However, thousands of returned scientists such as Qian suffered horrible persecution, particularly during the ‘Anti-Rightist Movement.’ Qian survived because China needed missiles,” he said.
Qian was born in Hangzhou city, in China’s eastern Zhejiang province, in 1911.
In 1935 he traveled to the United States to study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston.
Four years later, he received a doctorate in aviation and mathematics from the California Institute of Technology (CalTech).
While in the United States, Qian served as a professor at MIT and director of the Jet Propulsion Center at CalTech.
During World War II, Qian helped to design ballistic missiles for the U.S. military.
In 1945 he was sent to Europe to examine captured rocket technology from Nazi Germany and interviewed the program's chief designer, Werner von Braun, who would later play a key role in U.S. manned space flights.
After the war, Qian applied to become a U.S. citizen, shortly before Chiang Kai Shek's Nationalist (Kuomintang) forces were defeated by Mao Zedong's communists in China.
In the early 1950s, Qian was alleged to be a member of the Communist Party who had stolen confidential information about the U.S. government and was put in prison for 15 days, followed by a five-year house arrest under the surveillance of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
In June of 1955, then Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai negotiated his release in a series of secret Sino-U.S. talks, six years after the founding of the People's Republic of China.
Qian then contributed to the creation of China’s first missile project while participating in the development of China's first atomic and hydrogen bombs.
He played a leading role in the launch of China’s first satellite in 1970, as well as in sending China’s first man into space in 2003.
Controversy in China
However, Qian’s career in China was not without controversy.
During the “Great Leap Forward” industrialization movement of 1958, Qian published articles claiming that China’s crop harvest could produce as much as 5,000 kilos (11,023 pounds) per mu (0.16 acre).
His assessment led to Beijing’s disastrous agricultural policy of that year, which left tens of millions dead during the famine in the three years that followed.
Yang Hengjun suggested Qian was forced to make the assessment as a result of government pressure, particularly because many intellectuals were being persecuted at the time.
“Qian really made a terrible mistake. As a scientist, writing those kinds of articles is silly,” Yang said.
“If this was really what he thought, that means he knew very little outside of his specialty. But if this was a result of political pressure, that would be another question,” he said.
Mao Yushi noted that in his later years, Qian showed support for the study of Qi Gong, a Chinese style of meditation, and supernatural phenomena related to the practice.
“He was against criticizing Qi Gong, and I agree with him. His opposition somehow relaxed the government’s attitude towards Qi Gong,” Mao said.
Falun Gong, a religious meditation group banned by the Chinese government, was a Qi Gong group in its fledgling days. The Xinhua obituary neglected to mention Qian’s work researching Qi Gong.
Original reporting by Ding Xiao for RFA’s Mandarin service. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated by Ping Chen. Written for the Web in English by Joshua Lipes. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.