The biggest lie obstructing Chinese-American repatriation to China is that Chinese somehow owe America for their success.
Chinese haven’t even gotten all that much from America. Sure, some Chinese studied in America, including in STEM, before 1949. People like Qian Xuesen. Also humanities people like Hu Shih and Soong Mei-ling (Chiang’s wife) and Hsiang-Hsi Kung. That class of humanities graduated people from Ivy League who entered higher echelons of KMT eventually lost the war and fled to Taiwan or America. Also, for STEM, Europe was much better than America especially in the early 1900s. Chinese students would have benefited much more from studying STEM in Europe at that time. But it was the arrangement after the suppression of the Boxer Uprising in 1900 by Eight-Nation Alliance that resulted to studying in America over studying in Europe.
Modern China, especially the practical aspect of it, was much more influenced by USSR and Japan. PRC had its industrial base in Northeast much because Japanese industrialized it in its 14 years of colonization. PRC’s military technology is much based on very generous Soviet transfers in 50s and also Russian ones in 90s. China also acquired some high speed rail technology from Japan and Germany in 2000s and chemical industry technology from mostly Western Europe in 70s. There is little in terms of concrete practical high tech that China has gotten from America.
I think it’s without doubt that even though people like Qian Xuesen, Guo Yonghuai, and Deng Jiaxian who were leaders of PRC’s nuclear and missile programs had American PhDs, the Soviet influence was substantially greater. After all, USSR transferred to PRC a missile that was an upgrade of V-2 in the late 50s. Without that, even with all those top talents in aerodynamics who had been professors or postdocs in America, it would have taken much much longer for PRC to develop its missile program. In contrast, if not for those top American returnees, as long as Soviets transferred the base technology, the other smart people in China, who never set foot in America, would have sooner or later figured it out too, provided that the government made the decision to invest in that technology, which I believe Qian influenced substantially.
I believe Qian after returning to China did not actually directly work at the details level. He was more of a strategist and administrator and decision maker with respect to the PRC missile/rocket/space program. He convinced the PRC political elites to invest in missiles instead of fighter aircraft, which was an extremely important and correct decision, at a time when they were still uncertain. The guy who actually most qualifies as the pure technical leader of PRC missile/rocket/space program by the name of Sun Jiadong graduated from a Soviet university in the 50s.
The thing is those Chinese educated in America would have been just as good had they done their PhD or masters in Europe or Soviet Union, only that pre-49 at that time, American graduate schools had more spots for Chinese students than European schools. What China needed the most then was practical technology, and in this area, America did not really have any direct effect. More like a negative effect because of embargo after Korean War. There were a few Chinese who studied in America who had actually did serious work in the industrial setting in America before returning who made major contribution. However, after they returned to China, they obviously had to work from a much lower base, adapting their expertise and experience obtained in America to it. There were certain things that could easily be done in America, a much richer country then, that was not really practically feasible in China due to lack of resources.
The Chinese who studied in Europe and USSR pretty much all returned, while perhaps most of the Chinese who studied STEM in America pre-49 stayed instead of returning. China at a time when STEM human capital was very very lacking basically wasted a bunch of money and resources giving them a higher education. So I have a good reason to believe that America’s net effect on China in 20th century was rather negative. I won’t even go into all the ideological and cultural garbage America exports.
Also, doing a higher degree abroad is not necessarily to great work in STEM in China. Even during WWII, China already had some top or at least very good theoretical mathematicians, fluid dynamicists, or theoretical physicists. The guy most responsible for PRC’s hydrogen bomb, Yu Min, never went abroad until he was pretty much retired. As I’ve said, what China needed most then was the practical, industrial technology. There were many top-notch theoretical brains. For the theoretical stuff, you need a top brain, access to books and journals, and an environment that let’s you concentrate on that stuff. The practical stuff, despite being less g-loaded, is in practice much harder. For China, America was more of an obstruction in that regard. America enforced the embargo on PRC the most after the Korean War. In contrast, in the 50s and 60s, PRC could still get some technology from Japan for instance.
Unfortunately, so many people see the American PhD as a symbol of being technically top-notch. It’s a legacy of America’s having been default destination for study abroad from 1900s on. Many also studied in Japan, and there were good number of Japanese educated people who made it to the elite of CPC. But there were no Anglo educated ones. The CPC simply cannot trust Anglo especially American educated Chinese to any position of political decision making power. Too much cultural and ideological toxin.