95-year-old scientist Yang Zhenning (楊振寧/ 杨振宁) has once again stirred up a controversy. In a recent interview with the Chinese newspaper People’s Daily Yang advised Chinese students not to study in the US because American society is too “permissive”. The interview was prominently featured and disseminated on Chinese state-media.
“This year I am 95 years old. I have personally experienced the time when [China] was backward, and I realized that the Chinese people were bullied and despised by foreigners. This has left a deep mark on me,” Yang said in the interview, echoing Beijing’s strategy of perpetuating China’s past humiliation at the hands of the West. “Young people nowadays haven’t made that experience, this is a good thing for them, but in the long term they won’t have a deep understanding of history,” he added.
Yang argued that Chinese students don’t need to study in the US to get a good education, and that the idea that “elementary and middle schools in the US are good” is a “wrong point of view”.
He went on saying that a degree from a top US university is “the easiest way to success” for talented Chinese, and he praised the freedom of American institutions which allows “the brightest people to thrive”. However, he also warned that the US has too much freedom that may lead to a “degenerate” ways of life.
“American society as a whole is permissive,” he stated. “The advantage of this is that individuality can thrive, but this has been taken to the extreme. [Chinese] high school students that go to the US … will meet a lot of fellow students who take drugs. If young people are subjected to this kind of external influence they might degenerate … this danger is something that Chinese parents who send their children to the US haven’t thought of.”
Yang Zhenning was born in 1922 in Hefei, a city in Anhui Province. In 1946 he moved to the US, where he attended the University of Chicago on a Tsinghua University fellowship. In 1957 Yang was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics alongside Li Zhengdao. They were the first Chinese to ever receive the prestigious prize. In 1964 he became a US citizen.
Despite his achievement Yang is a controversial public figure both in China and abroad. Yang has cultivated close ties with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) since the 1970s. On July 20, 1971, Yang arrived in Shanghai by Air France, 26 years after he had left the country. He was received by Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, who gave a banquet in his honour at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.
In July 1973 he returned to China for the fourth time and met Mao Zedong in Zhongnanhai. Yang met with Deng Xiaoping in 1978, Jiang Zemin in 2000, Hu Jintao in 2011. He also met Xi Jinping in 2007 when he was still the Party chief of Shanghai municipality.
After Nixon’s first visit to China in 1972, Yang Zhenning promoted Sino-US relations. On January 1979 Yang hosted a welcoming banquet for Deng Xiaoping in Washington, and gave a speech entitled “The responsibility to help build a bridge of friendship”. In 1994 Yang was elected as a foreign academician of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS).
On April 1, 2015, he renounced his US citizenship and became a PRC national. “I had considered it for a long time. Making the decision was painful,” he told Xinhua News Agency. “I carry my father’s blood, and it’s the blood of Chinese civilization.”
However, netizens criticized him for “returning home” in his old age, after spending much of his career abroad while China was poor and needed his contribution the most. Some people suspect that his decision had to do with financial motives. For instance, China has no inheritance tax.
Yang Zhenning has also drawn widespread criticism for his private life. In 2004 then 84-year-old Yang married 28-year-old Weng Fang, a master’s student of translation at the Guangdong University of Foreign Studies. Yang’s first wife Du Zhili, whom he had married in 1950 in the US, had died just one year earlier. Yang had met Weng in 1995 at an international physics seminar in Guangzhou where she worked as an interpreter.
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