From China, To The US, And Back

In the 1940s there were 5,000 scholars from China -- some stayed in the U.S. and some went back to China after 1949
Jason Socrates Bardi, Editor

(Inside Science) -- Attention was drawn to the topic of Chinese-American scientists after a paper that Zuoyue Wang, Ph.D., a professor at California State Polytechnic University, wrote on U.S.-China scientific exchange during the Nixon period, which traces these scientists back to the 1940s. At that time, there were about 5,000 Chinese students in the U.S.

In 1949 when the Chinese Communist Party took over mainland China, these 5,000 Chinese students and scholars had to make a decision whether to stay in the U.S. or to go back to China. During the 1950s, about 4,000 decided to stay in the U.S., but 1,000 people went back.

The impact of those Chinese scientist who stayed in the U.S. after 1949 became pronounced after Nixon's trip to China in 1972. According to Wang, many of those Chinese-American scientists visited mainland China, and in the process they reconnected with their former classmates -- those who had returned to China in 1950s.  And together what the scientists have done, one of the most important undertakings they collaborated on, was to re-establish the procedure for Chinese students’ younger generation, like Wang’s generation, to come to the U.S. to study.

A majority (probably 70-80 percent) of those Chinese students have stayed in the U.S. after they finished their studies. So this is one of the most important impacts that the 5,000 -- both those who stayed here in the U.S. and those who returned to China -- made in terms of the change, both for Chinese science and for American science.

But one of the most interesting impacts that these Chinese-American scientists have had, which is the subject of Wang’s current research, is in terms of diplomatic policy, especially between the U.S. and China. Two areas that Wang is focusing on are nuclear arms control and climate change. And in each case, what Wang found is that those Chinese-American scientists, both those who had stayed in the U.S. and those who had returned to China, joined hands in increasing U.S.-China scientific collaboration and exchange, on a scientific level and on a diplomatic level, pushing forward the agenda in both fields.

And that's what Wang believes is a fascinating, relatively unknown, but important subject for historical studies.

Filed under
Author Bio & Story Archive

Jason Socrates Bardi is the former News Director of the American Institute of Physics and a longtime science writer.