Qian Xuesen, the Chinese rocket scientist who has died in Beijing aged 98, was a unique figure in the history of the world’s missile and nuclear arsenals, with a career that straddled the secretive military establishments of the capitalist west and his communist homeland.

Qian was recruited as a brilliant student in the US in the 1940s to join the war effort, briefly working on the Manhattan Project to develop the first atomic bomb and later on weapons to match Nazi Germany’s rocketry. But his life was upended in 1950 when the FBI alleged he had once been a communist and then detained him as he attempted to leave the US for China.

Qian was eventually deported to China in 1955. Having pioneered the ballistic missile industry in the US, Qian immediately set about doing the same at home.

The scientist retained many supporters in the US who remained bitter about their colleague’s treatment. The undersecretary of the navy at the time, Dan Kimball, said: “It was the stupidest thing this country ever did. [Qian] was no more a communist than I was, and we forced him to go.”

Qian was born in 1911 in Hangzhou, near Shanghai, and moved to Beijing at the age of three with his family. He gained a mechanical engineering degree in 1934 from Shanghai Jiaotong University. In 1935, he left for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on a scholarship.

In search of an institution that would match his passion for mathematics, Qian moved to the California Institute of Technology, where he would remain on staff until 1955.

He quickly established himself as one of the brightest minds in the country in the new field of aeronautics. He helped set up the jet propulsion laboratory at Caltech and designed the first ballistic missiles during the war.

Qian’s life changed when he applied for US citizenship in 1949. The scientist had married in Shanghai in 1947 and returned to Caltech. But when he sought citizenship, the FBI blocked him, claiming his name had been found on an American Communist party document from 1938.

Once entrusted with the US military’s most valuable secrets, Qian was stripped of his security clearance and kept under virtual house arrest. After years of covert diplomacy, the US finally let Qian leave the country in 1955, trading the scientist for US pilots captured by China during the Korean war.

For a regime isolated by the west and an implacable enemy of the US, Qian was a prize catch. He oversaw the development of China’s first satellite and missiles and was also a key figure in the development of the Chinese atomic bomb, tested in 1964, and its space programme.

Qian brought priceless knowledge home to China. But more than his expertise, he understood how to train and manage teams of scientists and had the clout in a deeply politicised research system to give them the freedom to work.

The injustice of the persecution of Qian as a communist sympathiser forms the central narrative of his life: a scientist lost to the west after being unfairly smeared during the witch-hunts of Senator Joseph McCarthy.

Some China scholars, however, plead for a more nuanced assessment of Qian and the predicament faced by the authorities in handling him. “I do not deny the abuses of McCarthyism, or the possibility that racism was relevant,” says Glenn Tiffert, a visiting scholar at University of California, Los Angeles. “But invoking McCarthyism or racism should not erase other substantive problems Qian’s case raised.”

Qian was a foreign national with access to America’s top rocket secrets. The cold war, with all of its real and proxy battles, in Korea, Taiwan and in the realms of espionage, was already under way in earnest. Even if Qian had been allowed to visit China in 1950, his potential value to the then fraternal regimes in Beijing and Moscow might have meant he was never allowed to leave.

“These are reasonable questions with no easy answers,” says Mr Tiffert. “They are also the stuff of nightmares for the intelligence and national security communities. What would have happened if Edward Teller had talked about privately visiting Budapest in 1950?”

Qian remained a revered and iconic figure in the official media in China, lavishly praised for his loyalty to “the motherland”. But excluded from the respectful Chinese commentary after his death (although not the blogosphere) was how he had been used by Mao Zedong and his henchmen in their brutal political campaigns.

Qian arrived back in China just when Mao’s revolution was turning nasty. In the late 1950s, Mao purged many liberals in the anti-rightist campaign. In 1958, Mao unleashed his Great Leap Forward, which resulted in a famine in which about 35m people died.

Mao ordered farms to be collectivised and once-productive peasants to be put to work producing steel in back yard furnaces. At a time when other leaders tried to point out the disastrous consequences of the campaign, Qian signed articles and papers ostensibly proving that the outlandish farm output targets set by Mao were reachable. His failure ever to account for his behaviour diminished him forever in the eyes of many Chinese.

Qian’s feats with China’s missile and nuclear programs ironically worked to the US advantage later, when Beijing worked more co-operatively with Washington against Moscow in the cold war after Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit.

China, however, is now a political rival to the US. Against that background, Qian’s legacy is altogether more powerful, both for his adopted country which expelled him and his native land which welcomed him home.

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