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


INTRO: 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.’”

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....


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