Uncertainty Enshrouds Yan Ning’s Return to China

Red guards and students waving Mao's 'Little Red Book.'

Most did not escape the disastrous Cultural Revolution. For example, the Red Guards killed Yao Dongbin, a famous missile and aerospace materials expert who had studied English. (Image: via Public Domain)

During the 1950s, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) embarked on improving China’s aerospace, nuclear physics, and atomic bomb research. To fulfill the CCP’s ambition, they aimed to entice talented individuals to return home to China and share their talents, just as molecular biologist Yan Ning has been enticed to do.

Qian Xuesen, Qian Sanqiang, and Deng Jiaxian, to name a few, were talented individuals who had chosen to study abroad, specifically in England and the United States. However, each had an eager and burning desire to return home and serve their country. 

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Unbeknown to these scientific and technological talents, their lives would end in tragedy.

Destroying its best and brightest

Most of them did not escape the disastrous Cultural Revolution. For example, the Red Guards killed Yao Dongbin, a famous missile and aerospace materials expert who had studied English.

Deng Jiaxian, a famous nuclear physicist, who studied in the United States, and his wife were both criticized during the Cultural Revolution. As for Qian Sanqiang, the first generation of Chinese nuclear physicists and one of the pioneers and founders of China’s modern atomic energy industry, in his old age, he was sent to a rural village as part of the labor force.

 Jiaxian at Purdue University in August 1950, after receiving his Ph.D.
Deng Jiaxian at Purdue University in August 1950, after receiving his Ph.D. (Image: via Public Domain)

Deng’s most outstanding disciple, Zhao Chu, who had conquered an incomparably complex functional equation in the most critical core technology of nuclear bombs, committed suicide. The humiliation and criticism he experienced during the Cultural Revolution drove him to swallow the unique functional table formula he had discovered, making sure it didn’t get into the wrong hands before taking his own life. 

Before his death, the Chinese Communist Party sent people to anxiously beg him to reconstruct that functional equation. Then, finally, Deng said: “I closed my eyes and saw Zhao Chu’s blood, and he made me realize a truth; that it is a crime against humanity to allow a destructive power to be in the hands of forces that should not hold it.”

Such a tragic price led Deng to realize the true nature of the Chinese Communist Party finally. It only took one wrong step that was not aligned with the CCP’s ideals that caused these talented individuals to experience personal harm, as well as their families, leaving the cause they had left and worked so hard for, covered with a layer of dust that could not be erased.

The Chinese Communist Party insists on continually implementing its “zero policy” campaign to eradicate COVID-19. However, the constant closures and tight control around the country have brought livelihoods to a halt and the economy to a standstill, causing people everywhere to complain. After being disappointed with the CCP, it has become a consensus among the people in China to “run” if they can.

With the current internal turmoil, the CCP is doing its utmost to entice talented Chinese who studied and are working in scientific and technological positions. Moreover, the Chinese Communist Party is trying to signal to the domestic public that it is still attractive and can make top talents return to China to work.

Yan Ning is returning to China

Such is the case of Yan Ning, also known as Nieng Yan, a structural biologist living and working in the U.S. At this time, Yan Ning has announced her resignation from Princeton University’s honorary faculty position and accepted Shenzhen’s “olive branch” to return to China.                            

Yan Ning studied at Tsinghua University and became the youngest professor and doctoral director at Tsinghua University. She left China in 2017 to be appointed as a tenured chair professor in the Department of Molecular Biology at Princeton University. She was later elected as a foreign member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and a foreign member of the U.S. Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Molecular biologist Yan Ning.
Molecular biologist Yan Ning. (Image: via Princeton University)

On the morning of November 1, 2022, at the “Shenzhen Global Innovation Talent Forum,” Yan Ning announced in her speech that she would resign from her teaching position at Princeton University and return to China full-time to establish the Shenzhen Academy of Medical Sciences. The news became viral as it hit the online media. 

In Yan Ning’s own words, she has gone through the stage of absorbing learning and proving herself. In the third stage of her life, she hopes to “pay forward” what she has learned. She wants to help and support more young people, to build a platform “whereby they can rely on their ‘inner drive’; be worry-free and unencumbered to explore, show their potential and make truly original discoveries.”

Shenzhen has done much to attract Yan Ning, who will serve as the Shenzhen Academy of Medical Sciences president. Yan has been given free rein to set up research teams of her choice, have access to large amounts of disposable funds, and independently choose the field(s) of research.

She called Shenzhen a “dream city” in her speech, and the Shenzhen Academy of Medical Sciences aims to build a world-renowned medical research institution. 

Since the CCP needs skilled people, it can agree to any condition a person requests. So currently, everything appears very beautiful for Yan Ning and the Shenzhen Academy of Medical Sciences; however, with the proven CCP history and various past movements, time will tell how successful this union will be.

Yan Ning is not a naturalized U.S. citizen, and hopefully, she holds a U.S. green card because the longevity of this present situation is enshrouded in mystery; this may give her a way out if she needs it. 

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