The American-Trained Rocket Scientist Who Shaped China’s Surveillance System

An Excerpt from ‘Surveillance State: Inside China’s Quest to Launch a New Era of Social Control’

The role Qian Xuesen would play in propelling China into a technological and ideological clash with the United States seems almost fated in retrospect. Born in Hangzhou in 1911, the year China’s last dynasty crumbled, Qian had traveled to the United States on a scholarship to study aeronautics and quickly impressed professors with his precision and imagination. The U.S. military granted him clearance to work on classified projects during World War II, despite his not being an American citizen, after mathematician Theodore von Kármán recommended him to the Army Air Forces as an “undisputed genius.” At age 37, he was named founding director of a new jet propulsion center at the California Institute of Technology funded by the Guggenheim family.

Not long after, his career plummeted back to earth. With Wisconsin senator Joseph McCarthy deep into his campaign to bleach any vestige of Communism out of American politics, federal agents visited Qian at his Caltech office in June 1950 saying they had seen his name on a list of Communist Party members dating to his days as a grad student. Despite Qian’s denials, the military revoked his security clearance. When the engineer, humiliated and unable to continue his classified work, tried to travel back to China with his family, customs officials seized his luggage and accused him of trying to smuggle classified documents to Beijing. Qian spent two weeks in a cell, then the next several years under federal surveillance.

With the FBI tracking his activities, Qian spent much of his time huddled in his home in Los Angeles, immersing himself in a new area of study built around revolutionary insights into the relationship between information and control. Known as cybernetics, the field was, as scholar Thomas Rid would later describe it, “a veritable ideology of machines.” It would have profound (if now largely forgotten) impacts on computing, telecommunications, neuroscience, military strategy, artificial intelligence, and dozens of other disciplines of critical importance in the 21st century. Qian saw in it a way to reimagine how engineers approached complex problems, which he described in a book published in 1954, and which itself would prove influential.

The year after the book’s launch, Beijing learned that Qian had grown disillusioned with the United States. The Chinese quietly negotiated with Washington for his release, reportedly in exchange for 11 American airmen captured during the Korean War. Undersecretary of the Navy Dan Kimball would later call Qian’s persecution and expulsion “the stupidest thing this country ever did,” saying the scientist’s value to the American military was “worth five divisions anywhere.”

Watching as Qian prepared to depart, a reporter asked if he ever planned to return to the United States. “I have no reason to come back,” Qian said. Perhaps hoping to hammer home to American readers what they were losing, Qian also said he wanted to correct popular perceptions that he was merely a rocket expert. “I am what is known as an applied scientist who helps engineers solve their problems,” he explained. “The science of rocketry is just a small part of this field.”

Shortly after arriving in Beijing, Qian set about building China’s ballistic missile program almost from scratch. But, true to his word, he also applied his ideas far beyond rocketry. As his career progressed, he would use the principles of cybernetics as the launchpad for an elaborate system that blended human with machine to solve what he saw as the greatest of engineering problems: human society. The idea was audacious, as well as shot through with hubris and utopian folly. It also fired the imaginations of Communist Party leaders, who would later adopt it as the beating heart of their surveillance state.

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On April 15, 1989, the death by heart attack of popular reformist leader Hu Yaobang, who had been ousted as general secretary by conservative rivals two years before, set off what would become the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement. Thousands of students poured into the square and refused to leave. Other pro-democracy protests would flare up in more than 300 other cities.

On the evening of June 3, leaders in Beijing ordered troops back into the city, authorizing them to “use any means” to clear the square. China’s government has never accounted for how many people were killed by the volleys of bullets the soldiers unleashed. Estimates by survivors range from a few hundred to several thousand. Regardless of the death toll, the protests and the violence that ended them carved a wound in the Party’s psyche that forced a change in its calculus.

Qian stood ready to capitalize. On the same day as Hu Yaobang’s death, he published an essay in a journal run by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences that would later seem eerily prophetic. In it, he described Chinese society as an immense supersystem made up of economic, political, and ideological subsystems. It was folly to expect changes in one not to have ripple effects in the others, he warned. “If the development of these three facets of civilization isn’t harmonized”—Party-speak for made to work smoothly without conflict—“from the point of view of systems science, it will push the entire social system from order to disorder, chaos, and collapse,” he wrote. Shortly after the tanks left Beijing in June, with the Party believing it had rescued its rule from the brink of collapse, he publicly denounced the pro-democracy movement and referred to a prominent astrophysicist who had encouraged the students as the “scum of the nation.”

The following year, Qian took his ideas for managing society a step further. In an article for the Chinese Journal of Nature, he described human societies as an example of an “open complex giant system,” a category that also includes the human nervous system and galaxies like the Milky Way. These massive systems are made up of millions of sub-systems that interact both with each other and with the outside world. Compared to smaller closed systems, like those used to control rockets and satellites, they are vastly more difficult to predict and control with math alone. “Not even a supercomputer is up to the task,” Qian wrote, “and there won’t be enough computing power in the future to do this work either.” He argued that the solution was to add people (of a certain kind) to the mix. Sociologists, economists, political scientists, geologists, psychologists—experts in all fields—should be trained in systems science, armed with data, and enlisted in the building of models sophisticated enough to predict and optimize the complexities of societal change, Qian said. This “meta-synthetic” approach to social engineering, he predicted, would unite the natural and social sciences into a new discipline that would usher in the socialist dream.

As China limped into a post-Tiananmen world, accolades for Qian continued to flow. In 1991, he was given the First-Level Model Hero Prize, China’s highest honor for a scientist. Around the same time, propaganda officials launched a “Learn from Qian Xuesen” movement. His ideas began to be taught at the Central Party School, the country’s top training academy for political leaders in Beijing, and were credited by scholars with influencing the political theories of then-president Jiang Zemin. Later, he had an asteroid named after him.

The Party had good reason to celebrate Qian. The suddenness of the crisis the Party faced in 1989 had put many in China in mind of an old saying: “A single spark can set the prairie ablaze.” Most knew the line because Mao had used it in a famous letter intended to raise morale after a massacre of communists in Shanghai had led some in the Party to doubt the prospects for revolution. Once inspirational, the metaphor had now morphed into a warning. The Party had just barely escaped being engulfed by a fire sparked by the death of one of its own leaders. Top officials realized that another spark might come from anywhere: inside or outside the Party, from home or abroad. The ideas Qian had brought to China about how to manage society offered a way not just to fight fires but possibly to prevent them from breaking out in the first place.

Signs of Qian’s influence in this sphere started to become apparent in the early 2000s, when the Party instituted early versions of a “grid management” system to help police keep tighter control over urban neighborhoods. The system, which divided neighborhoods along a grid, was built to encourage a smooth flow of information and enable quick action to head off problems. Each square on the grid was assigned a manager, whose job it was to report goings-on to the police, take photos and video where necessary, and intervene when trouble appeared to be brewing. A series of efforts to build up digital infrastructure, collectively known as the “Golden Projects,” brought grid management into the digital age. They also reflected Qian and his protégé Song Jian’s emphasis on the importance of collecting data in order to grasp the nature of systemic problems.

The most impactful of the projects, the Golden Shield project, focused on exploiting information to neutralize security threats. One critical component, built using cutting-edge firewall technology from the United States and Canada, was a fine-tuned system for filtering out unwanted Internet content. The other key element was the construction of a computer network connecting the Ministry of Public Security with local police bureaus around the country, combined with a national online database containing the ID numbers and personal information of every adult in the country. On that foundation, the Party hoped to build a surveillance system that would incorporate tracking of Internet use at the individual level, closed-circuit cameras, and smart ID cards. Plans also called for the eventual incorporation of speech and facial recognition—a full 15 years before they would be put to use in the crackdown on Uyghurs.

After Qian’s death, the insights he and his students had shared with the Party helped it continue to maintain control, and thrive, in ways that have surprised the world. While most Chinese people have come to realize Mao Zedong was merely human, one Chinese scientist told Science magazine in 2018, “To a circle of scientists in China, Qian Xuesen is now, in their mind, the new god.” If Qian seemed prophetic after Tiananmen Square, however, putting his commandments into practice could be a challenge. In the Hu Jintao era, both grid management and the Golden Shield had short-circuited on several occasions, sometimes to a degree that made leaders in Beijing nervous. The Party’s effort to reboot its approach to control wouldn’t begin in earnest until after November 4, 2012, the day that it anointed a powerful new general secretary.