A look back at the deportation of Qian Xuesen by the US government


Chinese military retaliation against US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan last month included missiles launched around (and over) Taiwan. But in a strange twist of fate, the very Chinese missiles that threaten Taiwanese and US security are the legacy of the profiling and expulsion of a Chinese scientist by the US government. Nearly 70 years ago, in 1955, the U.S. government deported Qian Xuesen (钱学森), the world’s foremost expert on jet propulsion at the time, and Manhattan Project scientist, to China due to prejudice. anti-Asian. Qian went on to revolutionize China’s ballistic missile program and is remembered as the “father of Chinese rocketry”.

Today, the US government continues to repeat the same mistakes it made in the 1950s, with serious national security implications. But it’s not too late this time. The US Department of Justice should take the opportunity to acknowledge the existence of anti-Asian racial bias and comprehensively detail how law enforcement and the intelligence community will prevent anti-Asian racial discrimination. These steps are critical, especially as geopolitical tensions between the United States and China escalate.

Expel a world-class scientist

In 1935, Qian Xuesen received a US government scholarship to study at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and California Institute of Technology. He quickly became a prominent aeronautical engineer and during World War II supported the Allied effort by designing a range of missiles to counter German rockets. He even joined the Manhattan Project, which developed the first atomic bomb. In the late 1940s, Qian helped launch the US space program and ultimately applied for US citizenship.

But the McCarthy era turned Qian’s life upside down. As Iris Chang describes in “Thread of the Silkworm”, the US government accused Qian of being a member of the Communist Party without clear evidence as the zeitgeist of suspicion sweeping the nation “turned to scientists who were Chinese nationals studying at American universities”.

US law enforcement held Qian under house arrest for five years. He felt betrayed and humiliated by the country he called his home and which he served admirably. Eventually, in 1955, the US government traded Qian for the repatriation of American pilots captured during the Korean War. Former US Navy Secretary Dan Kimball called Qian’s treatment “the dumbest thing this country has ever done.”

In China, Qian was welcomed as a hero. He soon founded and developed the “Dongfeng” (东风) or “East Wind” missile program. Since Qian’s return, China’s military capabilities have grown significantly. Michèle Flournoy, the former US Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, believes that Beijing can prevent US forces from “projecting military power into East Asia to defend its interests or its allies”.

The modernization of the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF) is at the heart of China’s national defense. Qian’s legacy – and the Dongfeng missiles he pioneered – are both central to China’s efforts to bolster its “strategic deterrence” capabilities, according to a 2021 US Department of Defense report. Yet , the consequences of the US government’s decision to expel Qian, most recently on display in the hypersonic missiles that streaked over Taiwan, remain largely unknown or unacknowledged by US policymakers.

repeat the same mistakes

The specter that the US government will scrutinize researchers and officials of Asian descent has not dissipated in the 72 years since the Immigration and Naturalization Service confined Qian under house arrest.

In November 2018, the Ministry of Justice created the “China Initiative” to combat Chinese espionage. Among its goals, the program sought to develop an enforcement strategy for university lab researchers “who are co-opted to transfer technologies contrary to American interests”, and sought to “educate” universities about “potential threats to freedom academic and open discourse of influencing efforts”. on campus.” But the China Initiative has massively targeted Chinese and Chinese-American scientists: 88% of defendants in DOJ cases are of Chinese descent. This overrepresentation may have a valid justification if the cases had indeed led to high conviction rates, but only 25% of defendants achieved this result. Instead, most of the charges were “administrative violations” – minor offenses historically “dealt with at the university level” – not malicious espionage on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party.

For example, earlier this year the DOJ dropped all charges against MIT professor Gang Chen for lack of espionage evidence. His case is not unique. The DOJ also charged University of Tennessee professor Anming Hu, who was acquitted after federal agents admitted to falsely implicating him as a Chinese spy and using false information to add him to the list. federal no-fly list.

Although the DOJ rebranded the “China Initiative” to the “Strategy for Countering Nation-State Threats” in February (expanding the program to include Russia, Iran and North Korea), its legacy remains. As explained by APA Justice, a non-partisan organization that challenges racial profiling of Asian American communities: “Despite the program’s official end, the impact is still palpable, especially among Asian immigrants and Asian American college communities.” .

Recent reports further confirm this sentiment, and the data should sound alarm bells. A 2021 study from the University of Arizona found that 51% of scientists of Chinese descent fear US government surveillance (compared to 12% of scientists of non-Chinese ancestry). This is probably an understatement, as many researchers suspected that this investigation was a surveillance ploy the FBI would use to entrap scientists as part of the China Initiative. Regardless of the specific numbers, scientists who live and work in the United States have already withdrawn “from opportunities to engage with their counterparts abroad,” according to the American Physical Society. As MIT professor Yasheng Huang says, “It’s bad for science, and it’s bad for America.”

In May, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) issued two recommendations to address these concerns. First, the ODNI is committed to eliminating “unlawful racial animosity or bias” from security clearance processes. This is a welcome change and could be expanded to also monitor racial bias in related areas, such as posting restrictions. Second, the ODNI recommended training on “longstanding principles of non-discrimination”. This seems insufficient because training in “unconscious bias” lacks effectiveness: it can “activate biases rather than eradicate them”, especially against people of Asian origin.

Significantly, the DOJ has provided no accountability to the China Initiative for setting a precedent that racial profiling is unacceptable. While Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen “has concluded that this initiative is not the right approach,” the DOJ should go further.

  • First, it should publicly acknowledge the harm the China Initiative has caused to individuals and institutions without substantial evidence. This would go a long way to restoring the trust that the DOJ has lost. As Olsen argues, the DOJ “can harm our national security by alienating us from the people we serve, including the very communities we serve. [Chinese] government targets as victims.
  • Second, the DOJ should provide more details on how the National Security Division (NSD) will implement the Nation State Threat Strategy program. What are the new criteria for determining whether criminal prosecution is warranted? How will the NSD review ongoing cases of racial animosity? How will NSD assess whether racial bias persists? How will the NSD continue to collaborate with Asian American civil rights organizations, universities, and community groups? These are critical questions, and providing these details would underscore the DOJ’s commitment to preventing racial discrimination and rebuilding trust, especially within the Asian and Asian American communities.

For the US government, combating anti-Asian discrimination is a moral imperative: racial profiling is unethical and has violent consequences. However, it is also a security imperative. Beijing, of course, indulges in espionage; however, assuming individuals are Chinese spies simply because of their ancestry is a harmful counterintelligence strategy that undermines US national security.

Nearly seven decades ago, the US government expelled a scientist whose prowess and legacy now define China’s modern missile program. The Dongfeng missiles that recently landed around Taiwan should be a stark reminder, especially to American law enforcement officials and the intelligence community, that racial discrimination and disregard for civil liberties are detrimental to the national security of United States. As geopolitical tensions between the US and China continue to escalate, the US government should commit to addressing anti-Asian racial discrimination or risk repeating past mistakes.

IMAGE: People look at the Dongfeng 1 missile at the Chinese People’s Revolution Military Museum March 1, 2008 in Beijing, China. (Photo by China Photos/Getty Images)

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