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Science vs. the state: a family saga at the Caltech of China

Three generations of personal and political history show the tensions between the Communist Party’s need for knowledge and its need for ideological control.
December 19, 2018
Historical photo: Fang Lizhi, one of USTC's first faculty members, was later forced into exile in the US.   Family photo: The author holds her father´s PhD diploma at his graduation ceremony.   Historical photo: 1963, USTC´s first graduation ceremony, in Beijing.
Historical photo: Fang Lizhi, one of USTC's first faculty members, was later forced into exile in the US. Family photo: The author holds her father´s PhD diploma at his graduation ceremony. Historical photo: 1963, USTC´s first graduation ceremony, in Beijing.Family photo / USTC

On a hot late-summer day in 2005, I sat in a packed, agreeably air-conditioned auditorium and listened to a university administrator welcome the class of 2009. “Congratulations! As the popular saying goes, ‘The rich go to Peking U, the poor go to Tsinghua, and the ones willing to work themselves to death come to USTC.’”

Caption information for above photos

  • 1980

    Fang Lizhi, one of USTC's first faculty members, was later forced into exile in the US.

  • 1993

    The author holds her father´s PhD diploma at his graduation ceremony.

  • 1963

    USTC´s first graduation ceremony, in Beijing.

We laughed. If Peking University is China’s Harvard, and Tsinghua is China’s MIT, the University of Science and Technology of China, or USTC, is known as “the Caltech of China” for its small size and intense focus on science and engineering. I was proud to be there. But my pride shifted to awkwardness after the speech, when we stood to sing the university anthem, which ends with an exhortation: “Always learn from the people, and learn from the great leader Mao Zedong!”

Hearing Mao’s name left a bitter taste. It reminded me of career paths my country had denied me. Without the rule of law, I could not become a lawyer. Without a free press, I could not become a journalist. Without democratic elections, I could not become a politician. Instead I did what was expected of Chinese students without political connections or financial resources but with impeccable grades: I came to USTC to study science.

The lyrics of the anthem brought up a question my classmates and I would often ponder: Must scientific research be in service of one’s country—or can the pursuit of knowledge transcend nationalism?

Generations of scientists at USTC have sought to answer this question. The university gave birth to both China’s first satellite, launched in 1970, and the world’s first quantum-communication satellite, launched in 2016. It is home to China’s first synchrotron particle accelerator, and it will soon host a new multibillion-dollar quantum-science center. Over the years, faculty and students have, at times, wielded the university’s scientific prestige as a shield to protect academic freedom and political independence.

But if the university’s rising trajectory in recent years is any indication, science in China thrives most when it serves the state. Today I live and work in the United States. I spoke to many old schoolmates and current USTC researchers to report this article. The story of USTC that emerges reveals the limits of science’s ability to transcend China’s authoritarian politics.

It is also the story of my family across three generations.

USTC was founded in Beijing in 1958, to train scientists for China’s fledgling nuclear and space programs. Members of the faculty were drawn from China’s scientific elite. Fang Lizhi, one of the first, came to teach physics after being deemed too politically outspoken to work on the bomb. “He was actually happy about it! He said he would rather not work on killer weapons,” Fang’s widow, Li Shuxian, told me.

When the Cultural Revolution arrived in 1966, science was deemed heresy and knowledge was considered counterrevolutionary. Schools were closed. Books were burned.

When the Cultural Revolution arrived in 1966, science was deemed heresy and knowledge was considered counterrevolutionary. Schools were closed. Books were burned.

USTC’s central contribution to national defense did little to shield it. The university was forced to leave Beijing in 1969, at the height of the Cultural Revolution, and struggled to find a new home. Nobody wanted a group of intellectuals moving to town. Multiple provinces cited lack of food as an excuse before Anhui, one of the poorest, eventually agreed to host the university. The academic departments were scattered across the province: the Department of Modern Physics, known to have the most independent-minded students, was sent to a remote military farm. Only Modern Mechanics, run by Qian Xuesen, known as the “father of Chinese rocketry,” was placed in Hefei, the provincial capital.

That was where USTC’s and my family’s fates first intersected.

My grandfather had moved to Hefei a decade earlier to teach at the provincial Communist Party school. As the fever of the Cultural Revolution broke, classes at USTC partially resumed in 1972. Despite political pressure, Fang, the physicist, established China’s first astrophysics group at USTC. In 1973, my grandfather became a faculty member at USTC’s small humanities and social sciences division, where he taught economics for the rest of his life.

Historical photo 1970s USTC students laboring in Hefei during the Cultural Revolution. Second photo showing Fang and his fellow physicist wife, Li Shuxian.
USTC students laboring in Hefei (b&w photo) during the Cultural Revolution.

Fang and his fellow physicist wife, Li Shuxian.
Fang family; USTC

All my grandfather ever said to me about the Cultural Revolution was: “I was sent to labor. Everyone needed to labor!” His lack of interest in politics probably spared him the worst. Many of his more politically engaged and outspoken classmates and colleagues were dealt a harsher fate. “All of them died! All of them were tortured to death!” remembers Fang’s widow, listing off luminaries who had laid the foundation of modern science in China. “Zhao Jiuzhang died. Ye Qisun died. Wang Zhuxi, who taught me statistical mechanics, died. Only Qian Xuesen fared okay.”

After Mao’s death in 1976, the central government sensed an urgent need to rebuild the science and technology sector. When regular university admissions in China resumed in 1977, USTC had first pick: no matter which university a student applied to, the ones with the best grades in the sciences were sent there.

“The university was very poor, and in retrospect the conditions were very difficult,” a senior physicist at USTC who was then a student told me. (He requested anonymity out of concern for political blowback from speaking with a foreign magazine.) Seven students shared a single, cramped dorm room. Like most of his classmates, the physicist had spent years of his youth working at farms and factories during the Cultural Revolution, and he wanted to go back to school more than anything. “We read while walking. We read while standing in line for food,” he says. “Every day at the break of dawn, you could find students reading English by the streetlights.”

By the early ’80s, following Deng Xiaoping’s rise to power, Fang had been politically rehabilitated. In 1984 he became executive vice president of USTC. Guan Weiyan, a fellow physicist, was president. Describing his ambitions for the institution, Fang said, “A university should be filled with the spirit of science, democracy, creativity, and independence.” For a time, it seemed as though Guan and Fang’s leadership of USTC might transform the nation.

It was not to be. In December 1986, a few days before local elections, Fang gave a speech, saying, “I do not think democracy is bestowed from the top down. It is fought for from the bottom up.” Thousands of students protested the next day in Hefei, which then inspired more protests around China. Though they tried to defuse the student demonstrations, Fang and Guan were fired. The student movement continued until tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square in June 1989, killing thousands of protesters.

Fang and Li, his wife, took refuge in the US embassy in Beijing. They remained there for 13 months, until the American and Chinese governments negotiated a deal allowing them to go into exile in the United States. Neither ever returned.

Their names remain taboo in China. All of their published writings remain banned. Nonetheless, their legacy remains a source of forbidden pride for many at USTC. At the news of Fang’s death in 2012, messages of remembrance from alumni filled social media and electronic bulletin boards.

USTC had been by far the most selective university in China before Fang and Guan’s dismissal. After they were pushed out, it retained a rigorous curriculum and was still tough to get into, but the sense of punishment was palpable. Funding was cut. Recruiting of students and faculty suffered. It didn’t help that Hefei was left behind as Beijing and other metropolises like Shanghai and Shenzhen began to prosper.

Deng Xiaoping’s aphorism “Let a small number of people get rich first!” became a sort of unofficial motto for China’s economic transformation. I was born in the fall of 1989, months after the Tiananmen massacre. By the time my father got his PhD at USTC in 1993, Jiang Zemin, Deng’s successor, had again rehabilitated the university.

My father’s graduation ceremony, held on USTC’s central square, is one of my most cherished memories. I wore the only dress I owned, a frilly number with notes of lace, fancy for the time. In a grainy family photo, my father’s black-and-red robe contrasts with the green pine trees behind him. He holds me high in his arms, while I hug his hard-earned diploma tightly. My mother stands next to us. A tall stone plaque to our left is engraved with a handwritten message from USTC’s founding president: “Study hard. Be red. Be expert!”

That same year Chen Xiaoping, who now directs USTC’s Center for Artificial Intelligence Research, arrived at the university to work on his own PhD. “Very few people were studying AI in China at the time. And it was mostly theoretical,” he says. When he left China for the first time to attend an AI conference in Stockholm in 1999, only one other scientist from mainland China was there.

“An individual scientist has little power to change government policy,” says Li, Fang’s widow, “but if an authoritarian government asks a scientist to serve its interests, the scientist has the power to make a choice.”

But by the late 1990s, computer science was exploding as a field of study in China and elsewhere. A six-person team of USTC students, led by Liu Qingfeng, won a national voice-synthesis technology competition held in 1998 as part of a government effort to help the explosion along.

Microsoft Research China tried to hire Liu, but he convinced his teammates to found their own company. They named it iFlytek. The company struggled in its early years. Liu was just 26 when it launched, and while he recognized the potential for voice recognition and synthesis technology, he lacked managerial experience. The company nearly collapsed.

At a fateful meeting in 2000, some suggested that they change direction and go into commercial real estate, in light of the construction boom in China. “We made a choice that we would still make today,” Liu said in a TV interview years later. “We said, if you do not have confidence in voice recognition technology, please leave.” The founder of Lenovo saved them with a last-minute injection of capital. iFlytek now employs over 10,000 people; hundreds of millions of customers use its speech recognition software daily. The company is worth over $2 billion.

By the time I graduated from USTC in 2009 with a physics degree and the goal of becoming an experimental particle physicist, Hefei was transforming before my eyes. If it had lagged behind coastal areas in the 1990s, by the first decade of this century it was catching up with alacrity. The city doubled and tripled in size. New manufacturing plants, shopping malls, and commercial real estate sprouted up everywhere. As it grew, so did USTC. The university added new dorms, teaching buildings, research centers, and campuses and a second national laboratory.

Photograph of The plaque at USTC that is still there, it reads “Study hard. Be red. Be expert.”
The plaque at USTC is still there: “Study hard. Be red. Be expert.”
Yiming Chen / getty

What had been founded as a training ground for scientists working on atomic weapons now became an incubator for China’s high-tech industry. iFlytek was only the first of a series of big companies that USTC alumni would start. SenseTime, an AI firm now worth almost $5 billion, was founded by a USTC grad. Another would go on to run Baidu, the search giant. Yet these companies and others like them, whether in computer science or in biotech, illustrate the ethical quandaries facing scientists in an authoritarian state.

In a few short years, the Chinese government has turned the northwestern region of Xinjiang into a 21st-century police state with high-tech surveillance and mass collection of biometric data. The government is holding over a million members of the Uighur and Kazakh minorities, most of them ethnic Muslims, in concentration camps. Human Rights Watch describes the situation in Xinjiang as the worst human-rights crisis in China since the Cultural Revolution.

Many of the technologies that facilitate oppression in Xinjiang come out of work done at USTC. And many of them are now being used elsewhere in China. iFlytek is collaborating with Chinese authorities to build a nationwide voice-based surveillance system.

The Chinese government has tightened its authoritarian grip since Xi Jinping took office in 2012. “The management at USTC had always been relatively loose, up until about a year or so ago,” says the senior physicist. “Things are more sensitive now. No one knows what will happen next.”

“An individual scientist has little power to change government policy,” says Li, Fang’s widow, “but if an authoritarian government asks a scientist to serve its interests, the scientist has the power to make a choice.” I made my choice almost 10 years ago, when I left China to come to the US for graduate school. I told my family that I was going across the ocean not just to pursue a degree in science but also to live in a free country.

Over the past few years, I’ve often traveled to Washington, DC, to meet with members of Congress and the executive branch to advocate for federal support of basic research. It’s both humbling and empowering to do so—to feel that I can take part in American democracy even as a new arrival to this country. But as the Trump administration has become increasingly hostile and discriminatory to immigrants, women, and people of color—all of which I am—it has become increasingly difficult for me to conscientiously ask for funding from a government that discounts my humanity, or the humanity of any group of people.

Chinese academics in the United States face a dilemma: try to stay in a country where our future is increasingly in doubt, or go back to one that demands we choose between moral compromise and martyrdom.

The Chinese government has launched aggressive campaigns to attract overseas talent. Recent USTC presidents have crisscrossed North America on recruiting trips. I called He Yu, an old classmate of mine who had just received his PhD in physics from Stanford, to ask how he felt. “I just had this debate with two of my classmates, who were telling me to never go back to China,” he said.

We have known one another for more than half our lives. We spoke for a long time—about the history of the atomic bomb, about how Google pulled out of US defense contracts while developing a censored search engine in China, and about iFlytek’s work in Xinjiang. We contemplated our privilege and security in being able to discuss these topics openly and freely.

“At the end of the day, it is a compromise between complicity and survival,” said He. “Our view of what is right or wrong is from 6,000 miles away. It’s a different view for students and researchers on campus.”

He’s work focuses on superconductivity. “I’m torn at times,” he said, going on to list applications of the technology that have potential for both civilian and military use. “We always say ‘for the greater good,’ but who’s to determine what the greater good is?”

“I don’t have a good answer for you,” I replied. “That’s partly why I chose not to study applied science.” It was an honest answer, but it made me feel like a hypocrite.

USTC marked its 60th anniversary in September 2018. A flurry of events celebrated the university’s legacy in building China’s nuclear and space programs, as well as its strides in quantum computing and artificial intelligence. The celebration culminated in a gala on the evening of September 20, USTC’s official birthday.

A grand stage was constructed on campus next to the main entrance. Current and former students poured in from across the globe. I watched a recording a few days later. Students in military uniforms sang ballads in front of Maxwell’s equations. Alumni who are now generals in the People’s Liberation Army sat in the front row and gave remarks. This was followed by a segment called “Humans dancing with machines,” which featured students moving mechanically on stage with a group of R2-D2 look-alikes. The robots, like the students, were products of USTC: they were built by UBTech, a leading Chinese robotics company headed by USTC alumni.

The evening concluded with everyone standing to sing the university anthem: “Greetings to the eternal east wind/Raise the red flag high!” I had been chuckling and shaking my head at the stilted robot dance. But as the familiar melody came through my computer’s speakers, tears flooded my eyes. I replayed the last few minutes of the video again and again, sobbing uncontrollably in my room, an ocean away.

Growing up on USTC’s campus, I’d heard this song on the radio every weekday at noon for the first 19 years of my life. As a child, I knew it signaled lunchtime. I’d go to the window to watch streams of people emerge from labs and classrooms into apartment buildings or the campus canteen, trying hard to spot my parents. When I first learned its lyrics in elementary school, I had asked my mother why it was so political. My mother said the song was a creation of its time.

Over the years the political has faded into the personal. The song, and the place it represents, are etched into me. USTC is where my grandfather lived and worked and died. USTC is where my father lived and worked and died. USTC is where my mother grew up. USTC is where I grew up. USTC is the home I left with no certain prospect of return. The scientists of USTC have harnessed the power that fuels the stars, yet still find themselves powerless against the changing tides of politics.

I asked each of the people I interviewed for this story what they thought of USTC’s anniversary slogan, “Sixty years of being red and being expert. Sixty years of science and education in service of the state.” Did they think the purpose of science is to serve the state?

None said yes. One USTC professor, a prominent physicist, replied by quoting Mencius, an ancient philosopher: “In straitened circumstances, they perfected their own virtues in solitude. In prosperous times, they aided all under heaven impartially.”

Yangyang Cheng is a postdoctoral research associate at Cornell University and a member of the CMS experiment at the Large Hadron Collider.

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