The Genealogy of Chinese Cybernetics

Proposed by Qian Xuesen in the ‘90s as a new scientific discipline, the “meta-synthetic approach” to study the “open complex giant system” still exerts influence over thinking on high-tech social management, smart cities, and state planning in China.

Those who recalled their time with Qian Xuesen in Pasadena and Cambridge described him as a genius and not much more. He rubbed shoulders with luminaries like Jack Parsons, who would fall to the occult, and Frank Malina, who would be lured away by utopian communism. Qian, meanwhile, cut a conventional figure. He held himself aloof from worldly affairs.

He was an engineer; he built what he was asked to build, without too much concern for what uses it might be put to. He worked as diligently for Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman as he did—once the Americans ejected him—for Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping.

In 1945, he met Wernher von Braun in Bavaria; they spoke about wind tunnels. The only reason that the U.S. generals trusted a “resident alien” to come along on the Nazi debrief was that he was disinterested, but not disloyal. In his five years working with the highest levels of military clearance, there was never even a rumor of espionage.

In 1949, the FBI checked up on Qian. Their job was to smear him as a communist, but they couldn’t find much. With Caltech professors, finding a cause was usually easy enough: attendance at the wrong Young Democrats function or a favorable opinion of Stalin expressed to a friend would suffice. Qian, though, spent his free time at home with his wife and young son, and was not known for sharing political remarks of any sort. Caltech chemist Gustav Albrecht admitted in an FBI interview that he tried to sell his Chinese colleague on the Soviet worker’s utopia, but recalled Qian reacting with a “typical aloof oriental attitude.”

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