You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby: an Addendum to my China Post of September 8, 2016
The 1977 Northwestern trip to China—totally controlled by our hosts—took us to many places that I would dub as completely “safe,” in the immediate aftermath of the arrest of the Gang of Four and during the relatively brief reign of Hua Guofeng (spelled differently at the time) whose claim to fame was the alleged pronouncement by Mao, “With you at the helm I shall sleep in peace.”
Mostly, wherever we went, we were sat around a table with a group of people who were our hosts. In most cases that included translators, though I quite vividly remember one occasion when one local spokesman cheerfully said in a booming voice, “we won’t need that young man,” since he had studied astronomy, as I recall it, at the University of Chicago.
The main job of our hosts, whether at a school or a farming coop, was to tell us what they were up to with the prevailing tone being modest bragging, which was not at all the paradox it seems to be.
On one occasion the local spokesman came close to negating that “modest” when he told us that they themselves had constructed an electron microscope. While personally, I did not know how significant that was, the more knowledgeable people in our group, while quite benign about that “confession,” made it pretty clear that they didn’t think it was such a big deal.
That was then—very different from now. The New York Times of September 25 contains an article about the completion of a radio telescope in the mountains of South-West China. A villager called it a giant wok:
"The wok is the world’s largest single-dish radio telescope, and it officially began operating on Sunday, accompanied by jubilant national television coverage, after more than five years of construction. The Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope, FAST for short, is intended to project China’s scientific ambitions deep into the universe, bringing back dramatic discoveries and honors like Nobel Prizes."
Talk about giant:
"[The dish] has a collecting area of 2.1 million square feet, equal to almost 450 basketball courts. At 1,640 feet in diameter, it will be roughly twice as sensitive as the world’s next- biggest single-dish radio telescope, the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, which is 1,000 feet across."
Alas, most of my colleagues on that trip of almost forty years ago have passed away. But none of them, I am sure, would have predicted that the China we then encountered would blossom into the powerful giant it has become. I say “blossomed,” misleadingly, but will leave it to readers to give a name to the process that went from post-Mao days to the days of Xi Jinping.