LIFTING OF THE BAMBBO CURTAIN – from Ping Pong Diplomacy to non-governmental people to people scientific exchanges between the US and China – by Li-chun Wu – January 2021

Li-chun with husband Robert Wu, Amb. Gary Lock, and Bill Fuller of Asia Foundation

The relation between the US and China had seen its ups and downs since the establishment of diplomatic relation in 1979, although it has plunged to new lows.  It reminded me however, of the long period when there was zero interaction and full of hostility toward each other for more than thirty years since Mao Zedong’s Communist Party began to rule China in 1949. China was perceived to be behind a Bamboo Curtain, similar to the Iron Curtain post World War II between the west world and the Soviet bloc.

But before the Sino-US normalization, the bamboo curtain was even slammed shut further by the radical policies of the Cultural Revolution, controlled by Mao’s wife Jiang Qing led Gang of Four, between 1966 to1976. Families separated by the border could not even communicate or correspond for fear of being branded as “anti-revolutionaries”. For the Chinese scientific community, the impact of the Cultural Revolution was even more disastrous, with intellectuals deemed as class enemy and demons of the society. They were sent to the countryside, to the May Seventh Cadre Schools to participate in manual labor. All research works except those related to the national defense or military was stopped, and publication of any scientific journal discontinued. With universities closed, professors denounced, no fresh blood of graduates could feed into the research communities. Majority of the personnel and staff from three arms of scientific administrative organizations, Chinse Academy of Sciences, State Scientific and Technological Commission, and Chinese Association for Science and Technology, an umbrella for all professional organizations, were disbanded—only Chinse Academy of Sciences had a skeleton of crew remaining. Chinese scholars were scorned, isolated, and out of touch with the global rapid advancement of science and high tech industries.

The bamboo curtain cracked open unexpectedly during the height of the Cultural Revolution in China.[1] An US ping pong player accidently got on a bus for Chinese team during Nagoya World Table Tennis Championship in Japan in 1971. Mao decided to invite the US team to an all-expense paid visit to China. They were treated to the highest level of the curtesy and etiquette from the host, including meeting with the Chinese premier Enlai Zhou. It led to the secret visit of the National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger and then followed by President Nixon as the first ever siting President to visit China which led to the establishment of Liaison Offices in each capitals, and eventually normalization of diplomatic relation in 1979. Thus, the ping pong diplomacy started with the goodwill between athletes of two countries, gradually thawed the cold war. Lifting of the bamboo curtain “opened the door to trade, culture, and advancements in technology and sciences; while also creating a window of opportunity for China to shed the isolationism and grow into one of the most powerful country in the world.”[2]

Ping pong diplomacy also opened the door to the private visits initiated by Chinese descendent US scientists. They noticed signals that Chinese government might be open to non-governmental scientific exchanges between the two nations. Preeminent Chinese scientists were invited to visit US first. The organization in charge was Committee for Scholarly Communication with the Peoples Republic of China (CSCPRC), a non-governmental organization, facilitating people to people contacts of various disciplines of the scientific community on all level.

By 1976, CSCPRC had hosted Chinese delegations to US and organized several trips of US scientists to China. American Steroid Chemistry and Biochemistry Delegation was one of several US-Sino scientific exchanges, organized jointly with National Science Foundation, and visited China from Oct 10 to 29[3].  The delegation was led by Dr. Josef Fried, Chairman of the Chemistry Department of University of Chicago, and co-led by Mrs. Patricia Jones Tsuchitani, of National Science Foundation. A team of 10 scientists, including scientists from universities of different disciplines, medical doctors, and scientists from pharmaceutical company, came with a mission to study about the widely used Chinese steroid oral contraceptive, starting from the indigenous source to manufacturing to their eventual usage and distribution in Chinese family planning, as contraceptives were not widely used in the US yet. I had the occasion to participate in the people to people scientific exchanges before establishment of formal diplomatic relationship as I was assigned to be one of the two interpreters to the group, although I was a researcher at Beijing Institute of Zoology, Chinese Academy of Sciences. The host in China was a supposedly non-governmental organization, Scientific and Technical Association of Peoples’ Republic of China (STSPRC), as a stand-in for the skeleton Foreign Affairs Service Group of Chinese Academy of Sciences.

This delegation had come at an opportune time, the first American group to visit China at the end of the mourning period for the recent death of Mao Zedong in September, and arriving in Beijing four days after the arrest of the Gang of Four in Beijing. They were warned by the US Embassy on stopover in Tokyo not to talk about this explosive news with Chinese hosts as the news had not been publicized in China yet. However, at the US Liaison office cocktail reception for them, a liaison office staff slyly hint about the event. I had to pretend I was ignorant of his innuendo, although I had learned it from my fellow interpreters, staying at the Peking Hotel, via grapevine.  One interpreter, who had just came back from the North East, told us about the arrest of Mao’s nephew, who was an ally of the Gang of Four. We were all excited by the significance of the downfall of the Gang of Four, but we had to pretend that we knew nothing, as news of this magnitude, had to be trickled down to the ordinary citizens after the high ranking officials and communist party members.

By the time when the delegation arrived in Shanghai, toward the end of the visit, the whole nation and the world had learned about the downfall of the Gang of Four and the changes of Chinese political leadership.  Big character posters, dazibao, were posted all over the walls surrounding their hotel and everywhere, denouncing the crimes committed by the Gang of Four, and the juicy detail account of how they were arrested. It was to the delight of them, especially the political science professor from Ohio State University David M. Lampton, who with Leland Chinn, originally from Hong Kong, Research Fellow at Searle Pharmaceutical Company, would photograph all the posters they could find, and witnessed its political implication at first hand.  He later became a preeminent China expert, Emeritus Chairman of the Asia Society, author of many books and articles regarding Chinese domestic, and international policies and receive numerous award for his expertise.

The direct contacts between people in scientific exchanges gradually lead to mutual understanding and trust which paved the road to normalization. The initial private contacts of Chinese American scientists, such as Nobel Laureate Chen Ning Yang and the biologist, Mann Chiang Niu of Temple University and many others were critical in helping Chinese researchers to rejoin the international scientific community. In the following two articles published in Annals of New York Academy of Science in 1998, have recounted in detail the history of the role of scientists had played in normalizing US China relations.

  1. KATHLIN SMITH, 1998. The Role of Scientists in Normalizing U.S.–China Relations: 1965–1979, Annals of New York Academy of Sciences. Smith’s NYAS article.pdf (
  2. RICHARD P. SUTTMEIER, 1998. Scientific Cooperation and Conflict Management in U.S.–China Relations from 1978 to the Present, Annals of New York Academy of Sciences, , Pete’s NYAS article.pdf (


[2] Ping Pong Diplomacy Retrieved 03, 2013, from

[3] National Research Council. 1977. Oral Contraceptives and Steroid Chemistry in the People’s Republic of China: A Trip Report of the American Steroid Chemistry and Biochemistry Delegation. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.


Short bio – Li-chun Wu

Li-chun and husband Robert Wu went back to China in 1956, and worked at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Institute of Zoology in Beijing. She was sent down to the countryside, May seventh Cadre School in Hubei as part of the Mao’s order that intellectuals had to be re-educated. She was often called upon to be an interpreter for the visiting scientists before normalization between US and China. She and her family immigrated to US in 1979, and worked at the Life Science Division, NASA Ames Research Center. After retirement, she assisted her husband Robert in founding Nanyang Model School Alumni group in Northern California, founding Berkeley Chinese Alumni International Association, and non-profit US China Green Energy Council. She was at UC Berkeley first, before graduated from Simmons College in Boston Massachusetts.


BILLY’S COMMENTS : Li-chun and Robert were also Directors of The 1990 Institute. I admire them as an inseparable couple just like CB Sung and wife Beulah. Robert and CB are no longer with us, but Lucille and I intend to stay connected with Li-chun and Beulah for as long as possible. I deeply appreciate Li-chun’s special effort in writing this essay about US-China Friendship for my Friendshipology website. <> Thank you, Li-chun !