Tianyu Fang ‘20

Tianyu Fang ‘20

In many respects, Tianyu Fang '20 is a typical young man, fascinated by technology and politics. In other ways, he’s quite remarkable. In his junior year at Governor’s, Fang saw his essay on China’s ‘rocket man,’ Hsue-Shen Tsien, published in the magazine Foreign Policy, and in October of 2020, the Stanford University freshman appeared in a BBC Radio documentary about Tsien.

A discovery is made

Given Fang’s success with his exploration of Tsien’s story, it’s something of a surprise that the saga is not one Fang initially intended to explore. When he began writing in earnest as a sophomore at Governor’s, Fang’s focus was Chinese technology and authoritarianism, topics he explored through reading and attending a series of presentations by Boston-area scholars. “I wanted to get to know academics in these fields, and I thought the easiest way to do so would be to achieve something on my own, so I started writing and discovered I really enjoyed it,” the Beijing native recalls. “I saw a lot of writing about China being done by people who are not from the country and decided I could offer a more human touch than the abstract, geopolitical perspective I was seeing.” Fang has since had articles published by such outlets as the South China Morning Post and the Chinese edition of Financial Times.

Yet it wasn’t until Fang began searching for a topic for his historical research paper in American history—a requirement for every Governor’s student—that he landed on the ‘rocket man.’ “Tsien’s story is an important one in part because it’s widely known among first generation Chinese Americans,” he says. Like Fang, Tsien was a Beijing native. After graduating from Shanghai’s National Chiao Tung University (today Shanghai Jiao Tong University), he traveled to the US to study at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the California Institute of Technology. Tsien subsequently co-founded NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL), had two children born in the US, and harbored dreams of becoming a naturalized citizen. During the McCarthy era, however, Tsien was accused of being a member of the Communist Party and ultimately driven out of the US. After returning to China, he played an integral role in creating that country’s space program.

“When Tianyu proposed his research topic, he told me that he wanted to get to the bottom of Tsien’s story,” history teacher Bill Quigley recalls. And his young student was willing to do a deep dive into primary sources to attain his goal. “Tianyu obtained recently declassified FBI records about Tsien and also did a tremendous amount of archival research when visiting his family in China. The resourcefulness of this young man is truly remarkable,” Quigley marvels.

History repeats itself

After beginning work on the project, Fang realized there were troubling similarities between Tsien’s experience in the late 1940s and early 1950s and that of Chinese citizens in the US today. “As a Chinese citizen, Tsien was viewed with suspicion by the US government, in much the same way that Chinese students have come to be viewed as potential perpetrators of espionage and intellectual property theft during the Trump administration,” Fang explains. “Initially, I didn’t see the connection between the Red Scare of the past and the current situation, but as I began digging into Tsien’s story, I realized there are disturbing parallels.”

Indeed, says Fang, he has felt the weight of these suspicions himself. “Over the past months, I’ve had numerous conversations with my parents about discrimination,” he notes. Unfortunately, he observes, this growing ‘fear of the other’ is an international trend that will only cause harm. “When policy makers focus too much on immediate gains, they run the risk of transforming legitimate security concerns into damaging paranoia,” Fang asserts. “I love America, and I believe that one of its greatest strengths is its openness to immigrants. Sadly, a foreigner wouldn’t be welcomed in China the way that they typically are here in the US.” That attitude of openness and acceptance is a quality that can give America an edge, he insists. “Ultimately, racist paranoia only hurts one’s national interests.”

Fang believes he can serve as an informal ambassador between the two countries, someone with an intimate understanding of both Chinese and American culture who can make a non-governmental effort to bring people together. “Neither China nor the US is going away, so we have to redouble our efforts to understand one another and work toward reconciliation,” he insists. “Hyper-nationalism may be good for short-term political gains, but in the long run it jeopardizes our future.”

Although just in his freshman year, Fang says he’s considering a political science major or perhaps Stanford’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society. “I’m fascinated by issues of scientific development and the ways in which collaborations occur between countries and across borders.”

Quigley has no doubt that Fang will succeed, whatever goals he sets for himself. “Tianyu is a spectacularly precocious embodiment of our 7 Essential Skills,” he says. “He spent four years here at Governor’s and distinguished himself from the get-go. He is extremely well read and has a genuine, authentic interest in everything from the humanities to the sciences.”

Fang always exhibited a deep respect for his educational experience at Governor’s. “For example,” continues Quigley, “we don’t have a formal dress code, but Tianyu always wore a coat and tie to class to show his regard for the learning process.”  Yet he never put on airs, Quigley adds. “Tianyu was a beloved member of the student body—at graduation he received the Morse Flag, awarded annually to the senior whose record in all respects meets with the faculty’s highest approval. I’ve never seen a student achieve professionally, as he has, while still in high school,” Quigley concludes. “He’s exceptional.”

Tianyu is currently a freshman at Stanford University, but because the whole university is remote right now, he’s in China attending school online. To learn more about the subject of his research and to hear from Tianyu himself, enjoy this BBC radio documentary China’s Rocket Man.