Suttmeier on Barrett, 'China's Cold War Science Diplomacy'

Gordon Barrett
Richard P. Suttmeier

Gordon Barrett. China's Cold War Science Diplomacy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022. xiii + 258 pp. $99.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-108-84457-4

Reviewed by Richard P. Suttmeier (University of Oregon) Published on H-Sci-Med-Tech (March, 2023) Commissioned by Penelope K. Hardy (University of Wisconsin-La Crosse)

Printable Version:

Science and Diplomacy Then and Now

Gordon Barrett’s China’s Cold War Science Diplomacy is a carefully researched study of a largely overlooked topic. While most Western writing about the role of science in China’s international relations focuses on the post-Cultural Revolution era, considerably less has been written about the period from the Chinese Communist Party’s rise to power in 1949 to the early 1970s. A limited amount of attention has been given by others to China’s bilateral science relations with the Soviet Union and its Eastern European bloc, but Barrett is less interested in these than in the ways China’s “science diplomacy” developed through the “transnational” activities of Chinese scientists interacting with foreign scientists and with nongovernmental international scientific organizations.

The author introduces his subject by recalling China’s experience with the 1957-58 International Geophysical Year (IGY). China’s interest in joining IGY was marked by discussions with foreign scientists and the formation of a Chinese national IGY committee and the preparation of a national program outlining the contributions China might make to the success of IGY research. When the United States supported inclusion of the Republic of China in IGY, China rejected a compromise solution that would have provided for the participation of both “Chinas” as inconsistent with its “one China” policy. This led to Beijing’s withdrawal from participation in 1957 and reinforced its view that international science organizations controlled by the West were not welcoming of China’s participation in spite of encouragement from sympathetic Western scientists. Association with the World Federation of Scientific Workers (WFSW) represented a more congenial option, and remained so throughout the 1950s and beyond.

The ties to WFSW go back to the late 1940s and the activities of the Chinese Association of Scientific Workers (CAScW). With leading roles played by elite Chinese scientists (e.g., meteorologists Tu Changwang, Zhu Kechen), CAScW was an important “united front” organization supported by the CCP that sought to provide an organizational home for scientists with a variety of political views. After 1949, it became the All China Federation of Scientific Workers, which in turn was reorganized into the Science and Technology Association of the PRC (STAPRC), now usually referred to as China Association for Science and Technology (CAST). As with its successor organizations, CAScW, a nominally nongovernmental organization, became a vehicle for transnational scientific ties, especially with WFSW and briefly with UNESCO.

In the 1950s, China also explored involvement with the Pugwash conferences. With his many connections with international science, physicist Zhou Peiyuan had the lead in representing China and, again, came to symbolize the ways in which Western-trained scientists from the pre-'49 period were able to use transnational professional connections in attempts to promote China’s interest. But Pugwash also was dominated by representatives of the “superpowers,” leading China to again conclude that China’s interests could not be advanced in that forum. China ceased participation in 1960, turning again to the WFSW as the preferred platform for Chinese efforts to exert international scientific leadership. In the face of growing Sino-Soviet tensions (seen also in the Pugwash and WFSW contexts) in the late 1950s and early 1960s, China intensified efforts to turn the Federation into a major “anti-imperialist” forum, thus, deepening competition with the Soviet Union for Third World leadership.

This turn in science diplomacy is discussed in two chapters charting China’s new path in the 1960s. Troubled by the direction of the Federation, China’s science diplomacy after 1963 began to focus more on building solidarity with the developing world. The two major science diplomacy initiatives which followed were the 1964 Peking Science Symposium (at which Japanese physicist Sakata Shoichi was hosted by Mao Zedong for a discussion of elementary particles) and, just prior to the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution, the 1966 Physics Colloquium. By this time, science was becoming increasingly intertwined with radical domestic politics in China, reflected in a science diplomacy focusing on revolutionary solidarity with the Third World and the promotion of a vision of scientific development not dominated by the West or the Soviet Union.

To further illustrate the importance of personal ties in transnational science, Barrett describes the China experiences of five accomplished British scientists, all having sympathies with the new China, but with varying degrees of exposure to China and varying commitments to Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought. These included crystallographer J. D. Bernal, long known for his left-wing sympathies, entomologist Howard E Hinton, physicist Kurt Mendelssohn, and crystallographers Kathleen Lonsdale and Dorothy Hodgkin. For Barrett, these cameo sketches are illustrative of the complexity of science and international relations in the exercise of science diplomacy. As the author puts it, “As when attempting to characterize organizations such as WFSW, or events such as either the PCSWA or Peking Science Symposium, it is impossible to characterize the visits or activities of the scientists under straightforward or singular labels. Indeed they are much more interesting because of the fundamentally interconnected nature of personal, political, and professional layers running through them” (p. 211).

Barrett concludes with a useful summary of his findings and conclusions. As noted above, his history is one of complex interconnectedness of the interests of the CCP and the professional interests of China’s elite scientists. With few exceptions, the pursuit of transnational ties and professional interests by Chinese scientists could only occur within party-created institutional frameworks—the foreign affairs bureaucracy, the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), and CAST—and resulted in science inescapably becoming part of the foreign policy of the party-state. Yet genuine professional exchanges also occurred, often resulting from personal relationships developed in the pre-'49 era, and as a result of exchanges and participation in organizations like WFSW and Pugwash.

Barrett argues that his work supports the thesis that there is more continuity than discontinuity in Chinese international scientific affairs from the Republican period to the post-Mao era of reform and openness. Western-trained scientists, or those with extensive international contacts, maintained transnational ties during this period and facilitated the opening to international science after 1978. All the while, these transnational relations occurred within a framework set by the CCP and were guided by CCP united-front policies, as remains the case today. Reminiscent of initiatives of the 1960s, China’s current science diplomacy again includes outreach to developing countries by including offers of scientific cooperation in its Belt and Road initiatives and in efforts to promote a “Chinese model” of scientific development as an alternative to that offered by the West.

As science and technology have come to play a more consequential role in international relations, the importance of science diplomacy for many governments has increased. In his discussion, Barrett calls attention to a 2010 definition of science diplomacy developed by the Royal Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science that differentiates among “science in diplomacy,” “diplomacy in science,” and “science for diplomacy.”[1] This suggests that science diplomacy faces a complex task environment, one in which governments are challenged to manage and exploit transnationalism.

Referring, typically, to flows of goods, money, and people across national boundaries, normally in nongovernmental settings, transnationalism calls attention to the importance of cross-national networks. Barrett’s account of the roles played by key scientists illustrates the importance of such networks. But thanks to advances in commercial aviation (think 747) and communications and information technologies, today’s transnationalism in science is orders of magnitude greater than that of the Cold War years. Transnational science today takes a plethora of forms—the international scientific activities involving direct scientific cooperation between and among scientists themselves, relations between and among national and international scientific organizations, the international roles of universities and the various ways in which “transnational corporations” engage scientists and research centers around the world.

The discourse of transnationalism, though, can sometimes mask the roles of national governments and leaves unanswered the question, What are the relationships between governments and transnational phenomena? Barrett’s study provides only a partial answer. As we have seen, China’s party-state both provided the frameworks for transnational science and also employed scientists and their transnational ties in the service of political ends. Yet, arguably, some of the most important areas of Chinese science diplomacy in the 1950s and since the late 1970s have been focused on enhancing national scientific and technological capabilities by using diplomacy for science. One suspects that for both China’s political leaders and for the great majority of the scientists, government-to-government relations with the Soviet Union (and Soviet bloc countries), allowing for access to their educational and scientific resources, occupied a far more central place than transnational relations with WFSW. The collapse of the bilateral relationship with the Soviet Union, especially in the area of nuclear cooperation, of course, represented an enormous setback in China’s diplomacy for science.

Understandably, this type of diplomacy for science is somewhat beyond the scope of Barrett’s study, and he can’t be faulted for not giving it more attention. But signaling the absence of discussion of these issues illustrates the difficulties of getting conceptual control over the idea of “science diplomacy” and the challenges the practitioners of science diplomacy face.

Gordon Barrett has probed deeply into a variety of sources in writing this interesting and suggestive book. He offers new insights into how science served China’s united-front operations in the period leading up to the establishment of the People’s Republic. Students of Cold War history are presented here with new perspectives on China’s role. Those in the science studies and science and international relations communities are offered a case of the complex interactions between the professional and the political, as internationally engaged Chinese scientists sought to build transnational relations in the context of a Chinese state committed to using science to enhance national power and influence. And, at a time when the tensions between China and the West are testing science diplomacy in new ways, the study also prompts us to think more carefully about science and international affairs in our current era of transnational science and technology.


[1]. The Royal Society, New Frontiers in Science Diplomacy (London: Science Policy Centre, The Royal Society, 2010), accessed February 10, 2023,

Citation: Richard P. Suttmeier. Review of Barrett, Gordon, China's Cold War Science Diplomacy. H-Sci-Med-Tech, H-Net Reviews. March, 2023. URL:

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