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The China Cloud Overhead

The above essay, written by a professor in department of history of California State Polytechnic University, examines the experiences of American-trained Chinese scientists and scholars in America during the Cold War and McCarthyism. Chinese scholars in America during the time was transforming the technological landscapes of their foster land, yet was heavily influenced by the dark seed of McCarthyism witch-hunt. It treats this subject of both fascinations and frustrations, a time crucial to the history yet one shrouded in secrecy. A great number of Western-trained Chinese scholars chose to return to their homeland after the witch-hunt started prevailing in America. This phenomenon seems reasonable since the the academic atmosphere is no longer welcoming for them and China at the time needed to be rebuilt after years of sufferings and wars. However, this phenomenon could also be explained using the model of information cascade.

One of the most famous scientists that had gone back to China due to McCarthyism is hsue-shen tsien, a worldly renowned Caltech Aerodynamicist and rocket scientist and the best protege of Theodore Von Karman. He was accused of being a communist during his work time in JPL, which required  security clearance. The scientist was being watched by FBI agents during his time in the US, yet he was finally able to return home after a negotiations between the Chinese and the US government. Since he was a really popular figure on Caltech campuses, his leave for China created an information cascade for other Chinese scholars. After his return to China, he wrote several letters to his friends who were still in the US at the time, urging them to come back to contribute to homeland. Chinese scholars in his social circle all held prominent positions in some of the most prestigious US campuses. His influences on these scholars created a information cascade on others, that the western-trained scientists were all welcome in Red China and will be promised with government positions once returned. More and more scientists with expertise in their field chose to return to China and all assumed powerful government positions in the next decades or so. However, majority of them was being tortured and died during the cultural revolution. Their scientific contributions helped China build her atom bomb and guided missile in only five years. From this observed phenomenon, we can conclude that a powerful figure within a social group could create a information cascade much more easier than others. Hsue-shen tsien’s return marked the beginning of the transitions of Chinese scholars back to China, which was resulted from the information cascade he later created, a picture of a great nation, a flourishing nation — people’s republic of China.


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