The Genealogy of Chinese Cybernetics

Yasmin Dangor/Xi'an Railway Station

Those who recalled their time with Qian Xuesen in Pasadena and Cambridge described him as a genius and not much more. He rubbed shoulders with luminaries like Jack Parsons, who would fall to the occult, and Frank Malina, who would be lured away by utopian communism. Qian, meanwhile, cut a conventional figure. He held himself aloof from worldly affairs.

He was an engineer; he built what he was asked to build, without too much concern for what uses it might be put to. He worked as diligently for Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman as he did—once the Americans ejected him—for Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. 

In 1945, he met Wernher von Braun in Bavaria; they spoke about wind tunnels. The only reason that the U.S. generals trusted a “resident alien” to come along on the Nazi debrief was that he was disinterested, but not disloyal. In his five years working with the highest levels of military clearance, there was never even a rumor of espionage. 

In 1949, the FBI checked up on Qian. Their job was to smear him as a communist, but they couldn’t find much. With Caltech professors, finding a cause was usually easy enough: attendance at the wrong Young Democrats function or a favorable opinion of Stalin expressed to a friend would suffice. Qian, though, spent his free time at home with his wife and young son, and was not known for sharing political remarks of any sort. Caltech chemist Gustav Albrecht admitted in an FBI interview that he tried to sell his Chinese colleague on the Soviet worker’s utopia, but recalled Qian reacting with a “typical aloof oriental attitude.”

J. Edgar Hoover, if he had chosen to do so, could have learned most of Qian’s story from the dossier that his agents compiled. He was born sometime around the fall of China’s final imperial dynasty. His father set off from Hangzhou to take up a post in the government of the Republic of China. Qian went to the capital’s top schools. His first love was locomotives; his next was airplanes. In 1935, he received a Boxer Indemnity Scholarship, funded by the U.S. government, and jumped at the chance to study aeronautical engineering. After a brief stint at MIT, he left for the West Coast to join Caltech’s Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory (GALCIT) and work under theoretician Theodore von Kármán.

His work with the government was itself a twist of fate. Within a year of Qian’s arrival in late 1936, the military and their contractors arrived at Caltech, answering the call to discreetly ensure the country was at parity with the German military. When war was declared, funding poured into GALCIT from the military and his work was deemed indispensable to the American war effort. 

Qian found himself among the scientists and strategists that, in the final years of the war, had worked on crafting military-industrial policy for future conflicts. He worked with von Kármán on an ambitious classified report for the Army Air Forces Scientific Advisory Group; titled Toward New Horizons, it extrapolated a radical vision of what aerial warfare might look like decades in the future. He had access to classified defense projects, a seat on the U.S. Air Force Scientific Advisory Board, and a gig consulting on the Manhattan Project. 

The agents tailing Qian as he meandered around Pasadena in his Buick could not have known much about this classified work. Their job was to rebalance the postwar political order: Hoover and McCarthy had begun rooting out suspected communists and their sympathizers. At Caltech, the investigation focused on Sidney Weinbaum, a member of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. A Ukrainian Jew who had fled the Bolsheviks in the 1920s, Weinbaum was accused of having concealed Communist Party (CPUSA) membership to receive clearance for wartime defense contracts. Weinbaum and Frank Malina were comrades, and it was Malina who had introduced Qian to Weinbaum. It was the sort of connection McCarthy’s agents were trained to sniff out.

After the FBI knocked on his door in the summer of 1950, Qian tendered his resignation at Caltech and made ready to return to China. Even his FBI files detailed that he was never a fellow traveler, but he could predict the treatment he would receive regardless.

When the Immigration and Naturalization Service got wind that Qian was planning to leave, they detained him based on testimony from informants that he had joined CPUSA in 1938. Qian and his family were kept in legal limbo for five years. The Americans feared that Qian would carry his knowledge of ballistic missiles off to China or the Soviet Union, so they wanted to put him on ice until his knowledge became obsolete. 

But his knowledge of American defense technology—probably less sophisticated than that already possessed by the NKVD—was secondary to his abilities. During the years of quasi-house arrest, he began a dive into the novel field that would undergird his work in decades to come: cybernetics.

He had first been exposed to Norbert Wiener’s theories of cybernetics in his aerospace work. It was how missiles were guided: a controller receives information about velocity and pitch, sends information to servomechanisms to make changes, and then receives updated information in a feedback loop. Engineering Cybernetics, a book Qian wrote during his detention and published in 1954, theorized control of complex, interrelated systems. He conceived of his engineering cybernetics—or systems engineering, as it came to be known—as not merely an application of cybernetics to engineering but as an engineering science that subsumed control theory altogether. 

In the end, his limbo was resolved when the Americans traded Qian away in a prisoner exchange in late 1955. One of the greatest minds of the U.S. defense establishment was swapped for eleven pilots captured by the People’s Liberation Army in Korea. 

Advising a Nuclear China and the Great Leap Forward

Qian’s return to China was as unwittingly well-timed as his arrival at Caltech. The ideological reform movement that targeted previous returnees had died down. The Science Planning Commission of the State Council was putting together a twelve-year program for scientific development. 

Qian was nominally in charge of aeronautical work at the Institute of Mechanics, but his advisory work took precedence. His ideas for the plan went far beyond the modest suggestions of Chinese and Soviet experts. He had a direct hand in writing ballistic missiles, computers, semiconductor technology, wireless control systems, automation, and atomic energy into the plan. 

Qian knew that China’s priority had to be nuclear weapons and a ballistic missile to deliver them. He told the leadership that they needed two bombs—the atomic bomb and the ICBM—and one satellite.

The Soviet Union had supported the construction of a reactor in Gansu to enrich uranium and eventually gave tentative support for a weapons program. They passed along rockets, as well as plans for their first-generation RDS-1 nuclear warhead. Soviet engineers had used plans lifted by communist agents from the same Anglo-American program that Qian had consulted on. 

Soviet support soon dried up, however. The Second Taiwan Straits Crisis in 1958 rattled Nikita Khrushchev. With visions of Chairman Mao sending a Tupolev bomber equipped with a doomsday device over Taipei and triggering Armageddon, he ordered a pause on nuclear assistance.  

To take up the slack, the Chinese government sanctioned trial-and-error approaches. The efforts of Qian and his colleagues were successful: the first bomb went off in 1964. That was not yet enough. Two years later, they strapped a nuclear warhead to a Dongfeng-2 medium-range ballistic missile, launched it from a pad in Inner Mongolia, and struck a test site in Xinjiang. 

Qian’s role in getting China the bomb is still widely celebrated. But concurrent events would serve to give him a black mark in the history books. 

The Great Leap Forward was underway at the same time. Today, it is not a period typically associated with scientific progress. But in its own time, the Leap was tied to the technological Marxist utopianism of the Twelve-year Plan and faith in the potential of central industrial planning. The Great Leap Forward was based on two central projects: mass mobilization for industrial progress and optimization of agricultural production. Its industrialization efforts proceeded from the idea that bottlenecks could be busted through with mobilization. The Leap’s agricultural schemes, meanwhile, drew on scientific theories: Chinese agronomists devised “deep plowing,” while experiments in animal husbandry were underwritten by Trofim Lysenko’s genetic theories.

In a 1958 article, Qian proposed a series of advances that he believed could be made in agriculture within the next ten years. The future, he said, would see artificial weather modification, industrial processes introduced to farming, biomass fuel solving the energy shortages, a healthier diet via advances in algae farming, and a systemic understanding of solar energy boosting agricultural productivity. 

The article closed with a diagram drawing on Qian’s ideas about systems engineering. He illustrated agriculture as a holistic complex system, with solar energy connected out through agriculture and industry to food, culture, and clothing. It was clear that Qian saw the Great Leap Forward as a potential revolution in the application of technology—and that included cybernetics and systems theory—to economic, social, and cultural problems.

The realities of the Leap are now infamous. In the countryside, Lysenkoist schemes led to chronic soil infertility, and crops were occasionally left to rot on the field. Peasants starved on collective farms. It’s also obvious now that Qian, despite being occasionally pressed into catching flies and digging latrines, did not have access to a full picture of what was going on. 

In Beijing, Qian instead watched computers arriving from the Soviet Union and Chinese scientists taking their first steps toward reverse engineering their own machines. He even helped send mathematician Hua Luogeng—who had attended lectures by Norbert Wiener when he visited Tsinghua in 1936—to introduce critical path organizational techniques to factories and farms as part of a short-lived Science of Operations Research and Linear Programming Movement.

It was the start of a pattern that would play out repeatedly throughout Qian’s career in China: from his place at the center, the political structure appeared to have a level of organization and capacity that simply did not play out in the rest of the country. 

Moreover, the main force guiding how scientific proposals were interpreted and carried out was not the voice of Qian or his colleagues, nor sophisticated cybernetic feedback loops, but Maoist political discipline. To Qian, centralization of agricultural production didn’t mean cadres demanding unfeasible quotas but a rational system to facilitate early experiments in fertilizer distribution and in the use of advanced weather forecasting to direct nationwide crop planting. 

Qian found himself dragged into the propaganda effort when major newspapers printed a misleading excerpt from an article he had written about ten-year prospects for agricultural reform. They selectively clipped a line stating productivity had not yet reached its possible “ideal” peak and spun it into the ongoing campaign for cadres to be more ruthless in their enforcement of Great Leap policies. As a result, he came to be forever associated in the minds of some with the excesses of the period. 

Within a year, the policies of the Great Leap Forward began to be ignored by commune cadres and then officially reversed by central authorities. The operations research specialists went back to work in the defense industry. Officials abandoned schemes for the centralization of agricultural planning and cybernetic management. Control over agricultural policy was ceded to the pragmatists led by Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping. Their agricultural policy was one of decentralization, with farmers allowed to do what they liked once state quotas were filled—a policy not suited to central planning, cybernetic or otherwise. 

But the pragmatist program did not last much longer than the Leap. With a year of Liu and Deng returning to prominence, the Socialist Education Movement kicked into high gear. The pragmatists were tarred as “right-deviationists.” Experimentation was out of fashion. 

The importance of Qian to the defense program and the support of Zhou Enlai sheltered him from the worst of it. He managed to dodge the fates of criticism, struggle sessions, and hard labor met by many of his colleagues during the Cultural Revolution. When an armed struggle broke out between technicians and scientists at the Seventh Ministry of Machine Building, which served as the headquarters of the ballistic missile program, he had the luxury of staying home.

Publicly, he went silent in these years. Qian’s name appeared only sporadically in the newspapers, announcing political appointments or attached to advances in the space program. His collected writing shows a gap between a 1965 article on space exploration and a formulaic September 1976 memorial to Chairman Mao. 

Cybernetics and Opening Up

By the time Qian Xuesen returned to the public eye in the late 1970s, he had turned again to the promise of cybernetics. 

State cybernetics projects had never been possible before. Political instability pre-empted any attempts to overcome China’s limited computing power; antagonism toward any ideas associated with the Soviet Union, the standard-bearer for socialist cybernetics, made the idea politically dangerous. By 1978, though, Deng had tamed the chaos.

Qian went to work spreading the gospel of systems engineering. He worked with his dearest protege, the Soviet-educated missile guidance genius Song Jian, on a revised edition of Engineering Cybernetics. The new release took into account developments since 1954 in information theory, control theory, systems theory, operations research, and management science. In a 1978 article for state media, Qian described systems engineering as the “technology of organizational management.” He touted it as a holistic and comprehensive method to chart and optimize the relationship of elements within a complex system. He advocated for systems engineering to regulate nationwide industrial and agricultural production. 

His timing, once again, was impeccable. Deng Xiaoping and his loyalists were already laying the groundwork for the theoretical modifications that would be the dawn of a new age of scientism. In March of 1978, Deng proclaimed in a speech for the National Conference on Science that science and technology were among the primary productive forces and that the goal of his socialism was to develop those forces. 

This was a major repudiation of the Maoist line upheld by the Gang of Four, which held that the development of productive forces—labor, the machinery of production, and human expertise—was not desirable without changing the social structure created by production itself. If the economic relationships were undesirable, so was development itself, and any pragmatic argument in its favor made you a political enemy. The economic base of productive forces remained subordinate to the relations of production, which were themselves subordinate to the superstructure, made up of politics, law, culture, and scientific thought. 

Deng reversed this to say that the productive forces, including scientific inquiry and technological progress, were what drove society. The productive forces could be developed without concern about the relations of production, and scientific progress could be liberated from the constraints of ideology. A series of books and articles followed, with major party theorists advancing the idea that science and technology were philosophical systems independent of political theory. Deng called on “mental workers who serve socialism” to return to work and contribute to building the nation. 

Calculating the One-Child Policy

The ideological mood was right and Qian had the theoretical tools, but finding the computers to run these projects on was still a problem. In his 1978 article, Qian concluded with a note that any attempts to actually implement systems engineering would require “incredibly powerful computers.” 

Only a handful of computers in the country fit that description: several dated Soviet mainframe computers and indigenous derivatives, IBM systems illegally acquired by the People’s Bank of China, CDC systems purchased in the late 1970s through European middle-men, and—after the Sino-American détente—supercomputers purchased directly from UNIVAC and IBM.

The defense industry, and in particular the Seventh Ministry where ballistic missile guidance systems were designed, had both computers and cybernetics experts. 

The number of prominent Chinese cyberneticists had grown by this time: researchers like Song Jian, Chen Hanfu, Guan Zhaozhi, Yang Jiachi, Li Guangyuan, Han Jingqing, and Guo Lei had kept pace with their foreign peers. They had managed to come up with parallel advances in ballistic missile guidance and fire-control systems. But their research was restricted to the military and the space program, while Soviet, American, and British cyberneticists had been called on to apply their ideas to economic planning and organizational management.

What came in 1978 was not only an end to Cultural Revolution strife and Maoist political discipline, and a rehabilitation of scientific expertise, but also sharp cuts to the defense budget. This meant that defense scientists suddenly had to justify their relevance. They found their cause in the prospects of cybernetics for planning social systems. 

In late May of 1978, a delegation of Chinese cyberneticists—including Yang Jiachi, Chen Hanfu, and Song Jian—visited Helsinki for the Seventh Triennial World Congress of the International Federation of Automatic Control. It was the first time since 1964 that a Chinese delegation had attended, and they discovered what they had been missing out on.

It was there that Song Jian made the acquaintance of Huibert Kwakernaak, a Dutch cyberneticist that had fallen under the influence of the Club of Rome, a trans-national anti-natalist alliance founded by Italian industrialist Aurelio Peccei and former OECD science policy advisor Alexander King. Kwakernaak’s 1977 paper, “Application of Control Theory to Population Policy” makes reference to Edward Goldsmith’s 1972 population alarmist and anti-industrialization tract, A Blueprint for Survival, as well as Mankind at the Turning Point: The Second Report to The Club of Rome.

Three decades of communism in China had not extinguished the anti-natalist tendency that had consumed the elite since the New Culture Movement. Pro-natalist policies only held sway for a few years in the 1950s before the party answered the calls of the All-China Women’s Federation to provide contraception. It seems clear from the way that Song Jian writes about population growth that he was scientifically convinced, but also viscerally disgusted by surplus humanity:

In 1957, Mao Zedong said ironically: “In terms of child births, human beings seem to be least capable of controlling themselves and there does exist a situation of anarchism…” […] In 1964, seven years after Mao’s remarks, the second census showed an increase of another 100 million, making a total of 700 million. Soon the “Cultural Revolution” came. By 1969, even before people could extricate themselves from chaos and agony, an increase of another 100 million people was recorded. By 1974, the total reached 900 million. During that time, people lived in confinement, yet they were completely free to indulge themselves in reproductive capability.

He recalls from his 1978 visit that he was “extremely excited” and “determined to try” new cybernetic methods for population control. He did not have access to anything as sophisticated as the global simulations commissioned from MIT for The Limits to Growth, so he began by plotting population growth on Seventh Ministry computers using data pulled from state databases.

He gathered cybernetics experts from within the Seventh Ministry and the larger military-industrial ecosystem and began applying ideas from Qian’s systems engineering. Many of them came from the limited collection of cybernetic population theory papers he brought back from Helsinki.

His work involved finding “the feedback mechanism of [the] population system,” its parameters, and how to achieve optimal control. His conclusion, based on a model that took into account “studies of natural resources, the level of socioeconomic development, living standards, and ecological equilibrium” was that the target population for China should be 700 million. The only way to get there within a decade was by restricting all women to a single child. 

Once he had a sound mathematical model, Song Jian, the cyberneticists, and Qian went to state planners with a plan to apply systems engineering to the problem of population growth. 

It was easy to sell state planners on the conclusions arrived at by their model. The alternative would be runaway population numbers sandbagging modernization and economic growth. China began to implement the One-child policy in 1980. 

What happened next was a chaotic social experiment that exposed just how hard it was to build a cybernetic political apparatus, especially one functioning on the level of a great power numbering hundreds of millions. As with the Leap, there was an extreme dichotomy between the level of institutional control that scientific planners assumed, as opposed to what the institutions were actually capable of. 

On the ground, enforcement varied widely between provinces, as well as in rural areas. In some areas, women were forced into abortions or the use of contraceptives like IUDs. Some women opted to give birth to “black children”—unregistered, hidden, or adopted out, with many unable to gain the hukou registration that would allow them access to schools, medical services, or good jobs. They slipped through the cracks of a system that could not actually enforce its prerogatives, nor update effectively in response to feedback. 

The violence and coercion needed to carry out the One-child policy might be enough to conclude that it was a failure, at least from a humanitarian point of view. But perhaps things look different from the perspective of the family planning officials in the landlocked central province of Shaanxi or from that of a demographer isolated in his office in Beijing. 

Did they see the number of births go down? Yes. The total fertility rate declined. However, despite the population panic that seized Song Jian and state planners, China’s total fertility rate had already peaked somewhere between ten and fifteen years prior. It’s hard to isolate how much of the decline was wrought by increasing urbanization, rising prosperity, and an enforced end to the communal lifestyles of the work unit and commune. The contributions of the One-child policy to keeping birth rates low were just one factor in a mess of statistical noise.

Despite this, the party faithfully adhered to the One-child policy with only slight modifications for the next thirty-five years. They did so even as China’s fertility rate rapidly declined, dropped below replacement in 1990, and continued falling thereafter—on par with Asian neighbors with no equivalent policy. 

Even with the addition of the millions of children that went unregistered under the One-child policy back to the census, China was left with a massive gender disparity. Sex-selective abortions killed many in a generation of girls.

If this was systems engineering applied to governing a great power, it was a failure. Cybernetic regulation of a system requires accurate sensors. Regulating family planning required a large amount of accurate and comprehensive data. But, as the millions of unregistered births showed, the sensors were broken. 

Likewise, effectors in the system were not reliable. In the case of the “black children,” mothers knew they could escape surveillance by simply giving birth in another jurisdiction, or perhaps paying a bribe. The existence of a child might be noted in the databases of some state organs but not others. Now that the population problem has changed to a lack of births, and the system’s goal to boosting them, the ineffectiveness of the effectors is even more apparent. There are no known control signals to send into the system to coax fertility to move upward.  

Later relaxations to the One-child policy had nothing to do with the fertility rate changes that occurred but were the result of particular groups or regions demanding leniency. But all this only played out in the decades after the proposals of Song and his colleagues had been adopted. And in the meantime, the cyberneticists were expanding their reach ever further.

Systems Engineering and Reform

Soon after his political victory with the One-child policy, Song was called on to apply his systems engineering expertise to the task of reforming state price controls. Even as China’s economy opened up, the prices of over a hundred products and commodities were not allowed to float but had their price set by the state. His team, made up of some of the same cyberneticists from the population scheme, established a model for the gradual relaxation of that control. Prices for more than two hundred items of forty-five categories were fed into a model that 

…consisted of 114 equations, among them 19 equations in time series of dynamics, 43 for state description, and 52 for equilibrium. There are defined 142 structural parameters, including 43 endogenous and 20 exogenous variables and three types of policy control variables: purchasing and retailing prices, rate of wage increases, and taxation. The interdependent relationships among different variables constitute a large-scale dynamic system. Having reached stable operation, the system now is permanently resident in a large computer database and ready for running at any time.

Song Jian called for more. In a landmark 1984 article in People’s Daily, he laid out a vision for systems engineering to take the place of all decision-making processes. In the ideal scenario, the government would create a central authority to manage the entire cybernetic apparatus and train specialized technicians to staff it. The leadership was open to these ideas. Song Jian was steadily promoted. In 1985, he was put in charge of the State Science and Technology Commission and was appointed to the State Council a year later.

The reformist think tanks developed by Politburo Standing Committee members Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang promoted systems engineering, too. Even before Song Jian’s price control modeling, He Weiling, a member of the influential China Rural Development Issues Research Group, started publishing works calling for cybernetic planning as a way to revamp state planning and make it compatible with private markets. He co-authored two books on the topic with Deng Yingtao, son of the reform skeptic Deng Liqun: Economic Cybernetics and The Adjustment and Evolution of Dynamic Economic Systems. He Weiling followed these up with a 1988 work of population alarmism, Population: A Sword Hanging Over China, which advanced more extreme scenarios than those of Song Jian.

Jin Guantao, affiliated with the Journal of Dialectics of Nature and published by the Academy of Sciences, applied systems engineering and computer modeling to Chinese history and was widely read among think tankers. His methods and his conclusion, a conception of China as an “ultrastable system,” spread to the popular press and helped spark a “three theories”—information theory, systems theory, control theory—fever among the Chinese intellectual elite and consumers of middlebrow popular science magazines.

Apart from population planning and price controls, the most consequential early adoption of systems engineering turned out to be within the Public Security Bureau (PSB). Through the late 1970s and early 1980s, there were widespread concerns that urban crime in the wake of Reform and Opening had made the cities less safe. The PSB began to establish what they called “comprehensive management of public security.” This was an idea fortified with ideas from Qian’s own conception of “legal systems engineering”—essentially, applying his ideas on systems engineering to law enforcement. 

Even while the PSB did most communication over the phone, they began experimenting with systems engineering methodology in the 1983 “Strike Hard” campaign. A beat cop in Beijing’s Chaoyang District could feed information about sources of social disorder back to his station, where the chief could organize a preemptive strike. That information—names of offenders still at large, possible accomplices, intelligence on the methods used by criminal elements—could be sent further up the PSB chain of command, then distributed back again.

The mission statement of the 1983 strike hard campaign on crime lays it out like this:

The practical experience of recent years proves that only through organization on multiple fronts, a concerted policy of executing legal measures in a manner that is “hard, fast, and sweeping,” and unforgivingly striking against criminal elements can we deter crime, educate and save young people that have lost their way, and better carry out comprehensive management of public security. […] We must take a sweeping approach to rounding up criminal elements that have not yet made themselves known, as well as criminals that have already offended.

The chaotic Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 helped to spur massive investment and collaboration with multinational firms to equip the fragmented police system with network technology. By 1994, before widespread consumer access to the internet, the PSB started to be knit together through the Golden Shield project, which had access to telecommunications data, customs records, and tax information through rudimentary networked government programs.

The present-day program of advanced information technology, artificial intelligence, multiple surveillance networks, and big data integration has many sources, not all of them indigenous. But the debt owed to Qian Xuesen’s theories of legal systems engineering is acknowledged by thinkers in the field of legal systems engineering that he birthed. 

The Balance of Science and Power

The involvement of China’s cyberneticists in the Great Leap Forward and the One-child policy has tarred their image. At their best, success was unclear, and at worst, the programs were total failures with a massive human cost. The whole logic of cybernetics had been that the system should have been able to update in response to the local information that policies and officials encountered. This simply didn’t happen. For most of Qian’s career in China, circumstances cut his circles off from Western or even Soviet thinkers who might have offered criticism. Qian was already retired by 1991; he died in 2009, still holed up in Beijing and refusing most meetings with interested Westerners.

Political attempts at cybernetic planning—both in China and elsewhere—have never overcome the problem of limited sensors and weak effectors. The ubiquity of mobile internet technology and surveillance, the advances in artificial intelligence, the improvement of bureaucratic information sharing, and the mechanisms to integrate private with government data have not sharpened sensors so much as inundated them. Even with high-quality data and enormous computing power to sort through it all, there remains the problem of figuring out how to find the key signals, and how to do anything with them.

Qian and his successors had been skilled scientists, but poor political operators. They did not understand the degree to which disorder reigned in the rest of the country. Nor did they comprehend the real signals on which officials made decisions. While the researchers worked away in their labs, local officials calibrated their plans by who was winning the factional battles in the central party, which they figured out by soothsayer-like interpretation of slogans, headlines, and turns of phrase from the leadership.

Despite these failures, China’s cyberneticists have managed to retain their influence over questions of social order. Their involvement with legal systems engineering, and thereby how Chinese leaders built the security state over the following decades, has been by far their most lasting legacy on the daily operations of government. These were core functions of the state; officials knew what they had to do and who they trusted to do it. But where the state became a tool to carry out grand experiments in scientific central planning, failure always followed despite all the supposed promises of cybernetics.

Dylan Levi King is a Tokyo-based translator of modern Chinese literature and a writer on contemporary online culture. You can follow him on Twitter @dylanleviking.