Documents in: Bahasa Indonesia Deutsch Español Français Italiano Japanese Polski Português Russian Chinese Tagalog
International Communist League
Home Spartacist, theoretical and documentary repository of the ICL, incorporating Women & Revolution Workers Vanguard, biweekly organ of the Spartacist League/U.S. Periodicals and directory of the sections of the ICL ICL Declaration of Principles in multiple languages Other literature of the ICL ICL events

Subscribe to Workers Hammer

View archives

Printable version of this article

Workers Hammer No. 210

Spring 2010

Father of China's missile programme

Qian Xuesen: an appreciation

The following article is reprinted from Workers Vanguard no 952, 12 February 2010.

When Qian Xuesen (Tsien Hsue-shen), the father of China’s space programme, died in October at the age of 98, his story dominated the news on the Chinese mainland. In contrast, Qian’s death received subdued notice in the US, which had expelled him in the anti-Communist campaigns of the mid 1950s. A household name in China, Qian was widely regarded as a hero for his contributions to military defence and technological development, including China’s nuclear capacity. His funeral, held at Babaoshan Revolutionary Cemetery in Beijing, was attended by some 10,000 people, including all the top leaders of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), such as President Hu Jintao, Premier Wen Jiabao and former president Jiang Zemin. As Trotskyists — ie, revolutionary proletarian internationalists — we also salute Qian for his singular contributions to the defence of China, a bureaucratically deformed workers state, against the imperialist powers, centrally the US.

The story of Qian’s life and accomplishments is recounted in Iris Chang’s compelling 1995 biography, Thread of the Silkworm. Qian was born to a privileged family in Hangzhou in 1911, the year the decrepit Qing Dynasty fell. He became part of a generation of intellectuals who were determined to bring China into the modern world, liberated from imperialist domination. To that end, he began his studies in railway engineering at Jiaotong University in Shanghai. The campuses were in upheaval, with students protesting both Japan’s 1931 invasion of Manchuria and Chiang Kai-shek’s corrupt, brutal Guomindang (Nationalist) regime, which was reviled for its subservience to Japanese imperialism. After witnessing the impact of Japan’s aerial bombardment of Shanghai in 1932, Qian turned to aeronautical engineering.

To further its own imperialist interests, the US had established a scholarship programme — funded by indemnities extracted from China after the crushing of the Boxer Rebellion in 1900 — aimed at cultivating a layer of Chinese intellectuals. Qian Xuesen was chosen to receive a Boxer indemnity scholarship, arriving in the US in 1935. Beginning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Qian transferred to Caltech in Pasadena the following year, where he began a long collaboration with his mentor, Theodore von Kármán, a giant in aeronautics.

Qian was himself a brilliant scientist, one of the founders of Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He made significant contributions to the US imperialist military, including as part of the Manhattan Project, which developed the first atomic bomb during the Second World War. At the end of the war, he was part of a team that went to Germany to interrogate rocket scientists. There he saw concentration camps where slave labourers had assembled V-2 rockets and he interviewed the Nazi scientist Wernher von Braun, who would be welcomed with open arms to the US where Qian would later be driven out. In 1949, Qian wrote a proposal for a winged space plane that, as Aviation Week and Space Technology wrote in 2007, inspired research that led to NASA’s space shuttle.

Despite his prominence, Qian was subjected to racist abuse throughout his time in the US. In an incident he would recall with rage decades later, someone in a movie theatre who did not want to sit near an Asian demanded that Qian be ejected from his seat. A factor in his leaving MIT in 1936 was the requirement that students at his level work in industry to gain practical experience. This was nearly impossible for Qian to do since the US aircraft industry would not hire Asians. And even as Qian had security clearance at the Pentagon, he could not buy a house in Pasadena due to racist housing codes.

Qian became a target of the McCarthyite witch hunts that swept the US after American imperialism launched its post-WWII Cold War drive against the Soviet Union. The anti-Communist hysteria reached a fever pitch following the CCP’s seizure of power in 1949, which marked the overthrow of capitalist rule in China, and the outbreak of the Korean War the following year. Qian’s security clearance was abruptly lifted in June 1950. He came under special scrutiny by the FBI after he refused to testify against a friend alleged to be the leader of an American Communist Party (CP) cell in Pasadena. Qian was interrogated by the FBI and accused of having been a member of the CP, which he denied.

Hounded by the Feds, Qian decided to leave for China for an extended stay but was stopped at the airport by INS immigration cops. He was arrested in September 1950 and imprisoned for two weeks. During that time he lost 20 pounds and was kept in isolation, deprived of sleep and denied visits from all but his family. The INS issued a deportation order against Qian, but he was simultaneously prevented from leaving. He was not alone in that legal limbo. As Iris Chang noted in The Chinese in America (2003), following the 1949 Revolution, “some 120 Chinese intellectuals were detained and not permitted to leave for years” on the grounds that their “knowledge might jeopardize national security”. Nearly 50 years later, Chinese American scientist Wen Ho Lee was the target of another racist, anti-Communist witch hunt due to which he lost his job at Los Alamos and was thrown in jail on trumped-up charges of spying for China (see “‘Chinese Spy’ Hysteria Whips Up Anti-Asian Racism”, Workers Vanguard no 719, 17 September 1999).

Qian faced constant FBI surveillance and harassment. Forbidden to leave Los Angeles, he was followed on the street, his mail opened, his home watched and his phone calls monitored. In 1955 he wrote a letter asking the Chinese government’s help to get him back to China. His wife addressed the envelope to her sister, disguising her handwriting to resemble a child’s. Qian and his wife managed to elude the FBI and drop the letter in a mailbox at a coffee shop, from which it eventually reached Chinese premier Zhou Enlai. Following negotiations later that year between Washington and Beijing, which involved a swap for prisoners from the Korean War, Qian was deported and returned to China.

Immediately upon his return, Qian threw himself into scientific work on behalf of the People’s Republic. The establishment of a planned, collectivised economy enabled China — a country with a heritage of deep rural poverty and backwardness — to make historic social advances. This is despite the fact that the workers state that issued out of the peasant-based 1949 Revolution was deformed from its inception under the rule of Mao Zedong’s CCP. Qian played a significant role in China’s technological development, due to his own research and especially his talent for organising scientific work on a large scale. He was instrumental in developing the Dongfeng series of rockets and missile guidance systems as well as the launching of China’s first satellite in 1970. China has since become one of three countries to carry out a manned orbital space flight.

Qian was also involved in China’s development and testing of nuclear weapons. The CCP regime understood that developing a nuclear arsenal was crucial for military defence. Less than a decade after destroying Hiroshima and Nagasaki with atomic weapons, the US considered using them during the Korean War, in which China’s military intervention turned the tide against the imperialist forces. The fact that the Soviet Union had by then begun to develop its own nuclear weapons helped stay the imperialists’ hand.

Qian joined the Chinese Communist Party in 1958, later becoming a member of its Central Committee. Over the years, he went along with every twist and turn of the bureaucratic regime, whose anti-Marxist policies were rooted in the false Stalinist dogma that socialism — a classless, egalitarian society based on material abundance — could be built in a single country. In the late 1950s, Mao carried out the disastrous Great Leap Forward — a utopian attempt to catapult China to the level of an advanced industrial society through the intense exertion of mainly peasant labour relying on primitive technology. Qian used his scientific credentials to assert in magazine articles that agricultural output could be increased by a factor of 20 using only water conservation, manure and labour. Thus he bears a share of responsibility for the immense famine that followed the collapse of the “Great Leap”.

Qian made it through the intrabureaucratic Cultural Revolution virtually unscathed, as those working on highly sensitive military projects were largely shielded by their isolation and value to the regime. With his prominent position in the CCP hierarchy, he was very outspoken in support of the crushing of the 1989 Tiananmen upheaval, an incipient proletarian political revolution against bureaucratic misrule.

The contradictions inherent in Stalinist rule were seen in Qian’s own views. Though he was a brilliant scientist, his intense nationalism led him to promote some bizarre pseudoscience (as did Mao and others in the bureaucracy), urging the government to devote more resources to acupuncture, the qigong “art of healing” and the study of ESP. In the late 1990s, having originally promoted the Falun Gong cult, Beijing cracked down on this anti-Communist outfit, which pushes qigong to get popular support for its aim of fomenting capitalist counterrevolution and spews vile racism and anti-woman, anti-gay bigotry.

The most glaring contradiction was in the issue of China’s military defence, which is undermined by the Stalinists’ pursuit of “socialism in one country”, whose corollary is the quest for accommodation with imperialism and opposition to the struggle for world socialist revolution. This was graphically displayed by the Sino-Soviet split in the 1960s, when the Moscow and Beijing bureaucracies fell out in pursuit of their own nationally defined interests. Where the Kremlin criminally backed capitalist India in its border war with China in 1962, Mao’s regime went on to forge an alliance with the US against the Soviet Union in the 1970s and ’80s. Thus the CCP contributed to the final undoing of the Soviet degenerated workers state in 1991-92, a historic defeat for the world’s proletariat and oppressed masses that removed the only significant military counterweight to US imperialism.

The imperialist bourgeoisie, which has never reconciled itself to “losing” China, pursues a multifaceted strategy for capitalist restoration: economic penetration via Beijing’s “socialist market economy”, promotion of counterrevolutionary forces like the Dalai Lama, and direct military pressure, as seen, for example, in US arms sales to Taiwan. The struggle for a world socialist order crucially includes the unconditional military defence of the remaining deformed workers states — China, North Korea, Vietnam and Cuba — against imperialist attack and domestic counterrevolution. Thus we support the development of the Chinese and North Korean nuclear arsenals. At the same time, we fight for proletarian political revolutions to sweep away the nationalist Stalinist bureaucracies and replace them with regimes of workers democracy committed to proletarian internationalism.

As communists fighting in the belly of the US imperialist beast, we hold a place of honour for Qian Xuesen and the many other scientists and workers who, under extremely difficult conditions, made heroic efforts to build China’s nuclear capacity. In the midst of the Sino-Soviet split, we underscored the historic importance of this development, writing in “Bureaucracy and Revolution in Moscow and Peking” (Spartacist no 3, January-February 1965):

“China’s development of the A-bomb must be greeted by all revolutionary Marxists as a welcome strengthening of Chinese defenses at a time when the Chinese Revolution is not only being aggressively threatened by U.S. imperialism but when it is also being systematically betrayed by the Soviet bureaucracy in the search for ‘peaceful coexistence.’ However, the main point is that every increase in the ability of the Chinese to hold the U.S. at bay militarily is an increase in time to prepare the proletarian revolution — above all in America — the only final safeguard to all gains thus far made by the international working class.”

Workers Hammer No. 210

WH 210

Spring 2010


No vote to Labour, party of racism and war!

Labour plans deeper cuts than Thatcher

Troops out of Iraq, Afghanistan!

Down with racist "war on terror"!


Quote of the issue

In defence of dialectical materialism


Father of China's missile programme

Qian Xuesen: an appreciation


Defend the Palestinian people!

Free the anti-Zionist protesters! Drop the charges now!


All US/UN troops out of Haiti now!


US Supreme Court of death rules against Mumia Abu-Jamal

Mumia is innocent -- free him now!

Abolish the racist death penalty!


Reformism in action

When Militant ran Liverpool

Down with executive offices of the capitalist state!


Victory to the BA strike!

Shut down Heathrow Airport!