In 1957, Yang and Tsung-Dao Lee, a Chinese comrade who graduated from the University of Chicago, won the nobel prize to propose that when certain 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 was first awarded in 1901, the same year as the Boxer Protocol. “As I stand here today and tell you about it, I am very aware that I am in more ways than one a product of Chinese and Western cultures, in harmony and conflict,” he said. -he declares.
Yang became a U.S. 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 relations between the United States and China began to thaw, Yang visited his homeland in 1971, his first trip in a quarter of a century. Much had changed. His father’s health was failing. The Cultural Revolution was raging, and Western science and Chinese tradition had been viewed as heresy. Many of Yang’s former colleagues, including Huang and Deng, were persecuted and forced to do forced labor. The Nobel laureate, on the other hand, was received as 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 travels caught the attention of the FBI, who considered exchanges with Chinese scientists as suspect. But by the end of the 1970s, hostilities had subsided. Mao Zedong was dead. The Cultural Revolution was over. Beijing has adopted reforms and policies of openness. Chinese students could go to study abroad. Yang helped raise funds for Chinese academics to come to the United States and for international experts to attend conferences in China, where he also helped establish new research centers. When Deng Jiaxian died in 1986, Yang wrote a praise for his friend, who had dedicated his life to China’s nuclear defense. It ended with a song from 1906, one of his father’s favorites: “[T]he sons of China, they hold the sky in the air with one hand… The crimson never fades from their blood spilled in the sand.
Yang retired from Stony Brook in 1999 and returned to China a few years later to teach physics to first-year students at Tsinghua. In 2015, he renounced his American nationality and became a citizen of the People’s Republic of China. In an essay remembering his father, Yang recounted his first decision to emigrate. He wrote: “I know that until his last 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 lecture at my university. My roommates and I waited outside the room hours ahead, gaining precious seats in the crowded auditorium. He took the stage to thunderous applause and gave a presentation in English on his work as a Nobel Laureate. I was a little confused about his choice of language. One of my roommates mumbled, wondering if Yang was too good at speaking in his native language. We listened attentively, however, grateful to be in the same room as the great scholar.
A college graduate and a physics student, I was preparing to apply for graduate school in the United States. I had been brought up with the idea that the best of China would leave China. Two years after hearing Yang in person, I too enrolled at the University of Chicago. I obtained my doctorate in 2015 and stayed in the United States for postdoctoral research.
A few 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 settle in China with the promise of generous personal compensation and strong research funding. Over the next decade, dozens of similar programs emerged. Some, like Mille Talents, are supported by the central government. Others are funded by local municipalities.
Beijing’s aggressive pursuit of foreign-trained talent is an indicator of the country’s new wealth and technological ambition. While most of these programs are not exclusive to people of Chinese descent, the promotional material regularly appeals to feelings of national belonging, calling on the Chinese diaspora to return home. Bold red Chinese characters have titled the Thousand Talent Plan web page: “The Motherland Needs You. The homeland welcomes you. The motherland places its hope in you.
Nowadays, however, the website is not accessible. Since 2020, the mentions of the Mille Talents Plan have largely faded away from the Chinese Internet. Although the program continues, its name is censored on search engines and banned in official documents in China. In the last years of the Obama administration, the Chinese government’s overseas recruitment has come under scrutiny by US law enforcement. In 2018, the Ministry of Justice launched a China Initiative intended to combat economic espionage, with an emphasis on academic exchanges between the two countries. The US government has also placed several restrictions on Chinese students, shortening their visas and denying access to facilities in disciplines deemed “sensitive”.
There are real issues of illicit behavior in Chinese talent programs. Earlier this year, a chemist associated with Thousand Talents was convicted in Tennessee for steal trade secrets for BPA-free can liners. A hospital researcher in Ohio pleaded guilty of steal drawings for the isolation of exosomes used in medical diagnosis. Some US-based scientists have failed to disclose additional income from China in federal grant proposals or in tax returns. These are all cases of greed or individual neglect. Yet the FBI considers them to be part of a “Chinese threatWhich demands a response from “the whole of society”.
The Biden administration is reportedly considering changes to the China Initiative, which many scientific associations and civil rights groups have called “racial profiling.” But no official announcement was made. New cases have been opened under Biden; restrictions on Chinese students remain in place.
Seen from China, the sanctions, prosecutions and export controls imposed by the United States resemble prosecutions of foreign “harassment”. What has changed over the past 120 years is China’s status. It is no longer a collapsing empire but a rising superpower. Policymakers in both countries use similar techno-nationalist language to describe science as a tool of national grandeur and scientists as strategic assets in geopolitics. Both governments are continuing the military use of technologies such as quantum computing and artificial intelligence.
“We are not looking for conflict, but we are welcoming fierce competition,” National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said at the Alaska summit. Yang Jiechi responded by saying that the past clashes between the two countries have only hurt the United States, while China is coping.
Much of the Chinese public relishes the prospect of competing with the United States. Take a popular saying from Mao: “Those who fall behind will be beaten!” The phrase comes 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 would often repeat the phrase at home, distilling a century of national humiliation into a personal drive for excellence. It wasn’t until later, in adulthood, that I began to question the underlying logic: does competition between nations make sense? By what metric and for what purpose?