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An Open-Door Policy for Chinese Spies

State of the Union: A movie about a physicist accused of communist sympathies (not Oppenheimer) with a lesson for today.
Tsien Hsue-shen (Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons)

I watched a Chinese propaganda movie last night. They’re getting pretty good. This one was awarded Best Art Direction at the 2012 Pyongyang International Film Festival so the quality was superior.

The movie, Hsue-Shen Tsien, is a biopic about the Chinese physicist of the same name (also spelled Qian Xuesen), who studied at MIT and Caltech and worked on rocketry for the U.S. Department of Defense until his security clearance was revoked in 1950. He returned to China and became the father of their missile program.


The movie depicts the same facts that appear in American history books about Qian, but the emphasis is very different.

In American history books, Qian’s story is about the folly of the Red Scare. Wicked McCarthyites drove away a talented physicist with false accusations that he was a Communist. Wikipedia quotes a naval officer who tried to keep Qian in the country: “It was the stupidest thing this country ever did. He was no more a communist than I was, and we forced him to go.”

The Chinese film is not at all interested in portraying Qian as a physicist falsely accused of Communist sympathies. (Who would want to watch a movie about that?) In the movie, Qian is insulted to have his security clearance revoked—because it is an affront to his brilliance, not because the suspicions are false.

He tells a colleague who tries to convince him to stay in America: “Before I left for the United States, I had already decided that I would use all the knowledge I gained in the U.S. to contribute to my motherland. Nothing will change my mind.”

Qian did not leave for China because he was accused of disloyalty. He left because he was, in fact, loyal to China. When the new regime under Mao called him home to help build up the country, he responded. He was a patriot.

That’s the version in the movie, anyway. I was inspired to watch it by headlines saying that two Navy sailors, Jinchao “Patrick” Wei and Wenheng “Thomas” Zhao, have been arrested for passing military secrets to China. Both men are Chinese-born naturalized U.S. citizens.

These arrests have led to the usual round of protestations about how Chinese people are no more likely to spy for China than non-Chinese people. “This is not and will never be an indictment of the Chinese people or ethically Chinese Americans, this is solely based on individuals, regardless of national origin or ethnicity,” an FBI agent said at the press conference.

Maybe. But in the case of Qian Xuesen, I left that movie thinking that the mistake was not accusing him of foreign sympathies but of putting someone like him in such a sensitive position in the first place.


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