There are two major political issues that have been repeatedly debated in China’s modern history; how China’s relationship with the West should be and how China should treat Western science and technology.
During the Cultural Revolution (CR), criticism against “bourgeois academic authority” raged. Science and even the lives of Chinese scientists were in jeopardy. The world-renowned physicist Albert Einstein became one of the main targets of this campaign. It was triggered by an article titled “Xiangduilun pipan (Criticism on the theory of relativity)” written by a local middle school teacher.
In Beijing, one of the vice presidents of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) Chen Boda took charge of the campaign. Most of the participants were young scientists whose knowledge was too limited to refute Einstein’s theory. Senior scientists such as Zhu Kezhen, another one of the vice presidents of the CAS, and Premier Zhou Enlai’s protégé Zhou Peiyuan, vice president of Beijing University and physicist who had worked with Einstein, took the side of Einstein.
Chen brought the campaign to schoolchildren and even planned to organize a rally of ten thousand people. But he fell off the ladder of power when he joined the bandwagon trying to elevate his patron Lin Biao to the position of the President of the State at a conference in Lushan in August 1970. It made Mao suspect that Chen in fact intended to replace Mao with Lin who had demonstrated his ability to mobilize the People’s Liberation Army in October 1969. The anti-Einstein criticism ceased in Beijing after Chen disappeared, but in Shanghai Chen’s rivals Zhang Chunqiao and Yao Wenyuan continued it.
Thereafter two major changes in domestic and international context strengthened the hands of Zhou Enlai, who had been protecting scientists, through the upheaval of the CR: the U.S.-China rapprochement and the Lin Biao incident.
Henry Kissinger secretly arrived in Beijing in July 1971, which opened China’s door to the West. Zhou Enlai intentionally issued important directives on promoting basic theoretical study in science in front of the Chinese American scientists who were visiting China. Zhou also encouraged scientists to write him letters in order to make the issue publicly known. After the Sino-US rapprochement, a newly published Chinese academic journal “Wuli (Physics)” became the stronghold for physicists who supported Einstein and his theory.
Soon after his allegedly aborted assassination of Mao Zedong in September 1971, Lin Biao died in Mongolia. It weakened the authority of Mao who chose Lin as his successor, and enabled Zhou Enlai to bring back the scientists to Beijing from local labor camps.
Zhou also gave the green light to physicist Zhang Wenyu’s proposal to build a high energy accelerator at the cost of $ 2 billion, despite a contrary voice from Yang Zhenning, a Nobel laureate physicist and professor at the University of Chicago.
High energy physics is based on Einstein’s theory of relativity. The physicists who had participated in building China’s first atomic bomb supported building a high energy accelerator. Zhang Wenyu led a delegation of Chinese scientists to the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in the United States in 1972, and Zhou Enlai established the High Energy Physics Institute in the CAS in 1973.
By 1972, the Cultural Revolution in the field of science had lost steam because the physicists were now allowed to applying Western physics despite its “bourgeois”, “academic authoritarian”, and “wasteful” nature that had been fiercely condemned during the Cultural Revolution.