luohu bridge: the bamboo curtain, literally

For many years, but especially during the Cold War, the Luohu Bridge was the narrow connection between China and the world — the bamboo curtain, literally. It is important to underscore the border’s Cold War status because during the colonial era, the Sino-British border was an open border. Indeed, it’s open status had made it an important refuge for Chinese intellectuals during the War against Japan. In fact, the border was not closed until 1950,when Great Britain agreed with US concerns that an influx of Chinese refugees and possible strikes threatened Hong Kong security. Not surprisingly, the border hardened as a result of the onset of the Korean War in June that same year.

In 1955, the Father of China’s space program, Qian Xuesen (钱学森) crossed the Luohu Bridge when he returned to China. Other important Overseas Chinese who returned to China by way of Luohu included mathematician Hua Luogeng (华罗庚), geologist Li Siguang (李四光), nuclear physicist Qian Sanqiang (钱三强), nuclear physicist Deng Jiaxian (邓稼先), and aerodynamics specialist Guo Yonghuai (郭永怀). Qian Xuesen’s life symbolizes how the US and China collaborated to militarize the border as the world shifted from British colonial to US hegemony. In 1935, Qian received a Boxer Rebellion Indemnity Scholarship to study mechanical engineering at MIT. He completed his doctoral studies at Caltech. In 1943, Qian and two others in the Caltech rocketry group drafted the first document to use the name Jet Propulsion Laboratory and included a proposal to develop missiles in response to Germany’s V-2 rocket. After WWII, the US Army commissioned Qian, giving him the rank of colonel. However, during his application for naturalization in 1949, he was accused of being a communist and he lost his security clearance in 1950. For the next five years, he lived under constant surveillance, until he was released to repatriate to China, where he helped China develop nuclear weapons, in addition to the country’s space program.

I mention all this history because episode 12 of The Great Transformation (沧海桑田深圳农村三十年) treats 30 years of development at the Luohu Bridge and Luohu Village (1980-2010) without mentioning the Cold War. Nevertheless, the military symbolism of the border is explicit. Images of Qian Xuesen observing the detonation of China’s first nuclear bomb open the episode. Then the episode cuts to “nine years earlier” when Qian crossed from Hong Kong into China by way of the Luohu Bridge. Then we see images of soldiers firing bayonets, and are told that the Sino-British border was established as a result of the 2nd Opium War, 1898. And then, in keeping with this military theme, we jump to images of the 1979 First Detonation, when China Merchants began construction on the Shekou Industrial Zone. All these guns going off and no mention of the Cold War. No explosions in Korea. Or Vietnam. Or ongoing war games in the Taiwan Straits. Instead, after the Shekou detonation, we cut directly to images of bulldozers flattening Luohu Mountain in order to put in the new railway station and infrastructure for the new Special Economic Zone.

Now, I understand the leap from the Opium War to Shekou is through China Merchants. I also understand the the one country two systems debate was rhetorically framed in terms of the end of colonialism. However, none of this explains why the Cold War was not mentioned in the brief introduction to the border. After all, Qian Xuesen and all the other Chinese scientists who returned from overseas did so in the context of the Cold War. To my knowledge, the history of that era, especially the pre- Lushan Conference history, is not sensitive, so there’s no reason not to mention it because the border was militarized during the Cold War and not during the colonial era.

Question du jour: does the general dampening of interest in Maoist history also mean that the Cold War is ignored? Or are we to understand Shenzhen history only in the context of the end to colonialism? And if so, does this mean that the Cold War will only end when Taiwan has been returned through another version of One Country, Two Systems?