Xiao Guangyan, a Chinese pioneering petrochemical scientist, was born in Japan in 1920. His father was Lieutenant General at the Republic of China’s embassy in Japan and later served as a minister of Wang Jingwei’s government. Raised in privilege, Xiao enjoyed a carefree childhood and later an envious life in the United States with a beautiful wife and an accomplished career. Yet he insisted on returning to China to “serve the motherland,” a move that later proved tragic for both himself and his family due to the betrayal of the communist Chinese government.
Xiao exhibited extraordinary talents from a young age. At the age of 9, he mastered three languages — Chinese, Japanese, and English. At the age of 12, he studied in Japan’s top middle school. Despite having it all, Xiao was never arrogant or mischievous. He loved reading and studying and scored top grades in school.
Xiao moved to the United States and graduated with honors from the Department of Chemistry at Pomona College in 1942. After graduation, he studied under Professor James Frank, a Nobel Laureate in Physics.
In 1945, he received a Ph.D. in physical chemistry from the University of Chicago at the age of 25. In 1946, he was an assistant researcher in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Chicago. Later he was hired by Esso (later Exxon-Mobile) as a chemist. At Esso, Xiao participated in developing the world’s first fixed-bed platinum catalytic reforming unit. This was the most advanced oil refining technology in the world at the time. His hard work and talent earned him the American Petroleum Gold Medal for four consecutive years.
At this point, Xiao had it all: He lived in a mansion, drove a stylish car, and had a beautiful wife.
In the autumn of 1949, China established the Chinese Association of Scientists in the United States to mobilize scientists to return to China.
Upon learning the news, Xiao was thrilled. He wrote to the Chinese government to inquire about what China’s oil industry’s needed. After receiving a reply, Xiao gave up all social activities, hobbies, and even spent thousands of dollars on photocopying equipment to collect critical information. After a year of extremely hard work and lots of stress, he gathered together what was needed. These materials later became critically important to China’s petroleum industry.
Xiao’s wife, Zhen Suhui, loved Xiao very much and had a happy marriage with him. However, she had big concerns and a different point of view about his return to China. She could not understand why her husband would give up a comfortable life in the United States to return to China.
The couple argued about this many times. Zhen said: “I can’t even speak Chinese, what am I going to do in China? The Communist Party is now in power. We have not made any contribution to the Communist Party. Who would welcome us back?”
In Xiao’s opinion, he was not interested in politics, and it didn’t matter who was in power. He simply wanted to bring the American technology back to China, which he considered his own native country. Xiao told his wife: “If you don’t want to go back to China with me, I will go back alone.” Knowing she could not change his decision, she agreed to go with him.
In 1950, Xiao decided to leave the United States. The United States government attempted to persuade, obstruct, and even ban him from leaving the country on the grounds of possessing state secrets and national security. He overcame many obstacles and routing through Hong Kong, he finally returned to China.
There, he worked for the Ministry of Petroleum. The Ministry of Petroleum was not in a position of establishing a research institute; therefore, he was sent to the Dalian Institute of Chemical Physics. There the working conditions were harsh and the equipment was very antiquated.
Despite a completely different life from the United States, his family lived happily. The Chinese government high officials appraised the materials he had brought back. After carefully checking through those documents and materials, they confirmed that these materials were very valuable and had filled the technical gaps in China’s petroleum industry immediately.
When he won the four gold medals in the United States, he didn’t brag to his family about it, but now he would be delighted to tell his family all about the medals: “Do you know that my materials are useful? This is most comforting to me,” he proudly exclaimed.
At that time, China’s petroleum technology was still in its rudimentary stages. Xiao provided the necessary knowledge and know-how of the type of catalysts to be used in oil refining.
Using his technological knowhow, China was able to build large-scale industrial equipment in the early 1960s, which was listed as one of the five essential technologies in China at the time. Xiao played an essential role in the success of China’s petroleum industry. Under his guidance, his team produced 15 essays in a one and half year period in this specialized field that laid the very crucial foundation for China’s petroleum industry.
Suddenly and shockingly, however, at the peak of his career in 1958, he was considered a “person seeking fame and gain,” and the Communist Party classified him as a counter-revolutionary. Xiao was stunned and couldn’t understand why. Posters all over his corridor read in bold print: “You have no affections for the motherland; you brought useless materials to get promotions; you get a big salary, but you haven’t performed anything useful for years; you talk a big game, it’s all lies…”
See part 2 here.
Translated by Joseph Wu