The Subversive Roots of Asian Scientists and Engineers

December 7, 2016

Asian female engineer

Image credit: Getty Images

The “model minority” myth surrounding Asian America continues to be one of the defining battlegrounds of modern ethnic politics.  Asian Americans appear to be largely well-off socio-economically.  We tend to work in lucrative, high-skill, high-wage professions in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). This gives ammunition to racist arguments: if Asians can succeed socially and economically as a minority group, why can’t Blacks and Latinos?  Why do the latter complain about racism, white supremacy, and oppression, and remain disproportionately poor?  

Asian American progressives tend to respond by talking about the immigration filter, and the need to disaggregate the data to reveal the heterogeneous nature of Asian America.  These are important arguments -- but it is still worth engaging directly with mainstream notions about “Asian culture”.   Why do Asians work in high-skill, high-wage STEM jobs in America?

Mainstream discourse talks vaguely about a culture of education in Asia that places particularly high value on scientific and technical knowledge -- but stops short of explaining how such a subculture was created in the first place.  It is important to push back against this kind of mythical understanding; culture isn’t something that simply falls out of the sky, or emerges from genetics; culture is a social construct, that is consciously built, and dependent on political and economic environments.  Understanding culture means understanding history, and the way our ancestors organized and struggled.       

The development of a techno-scientific subculture in Asia can be traced back to the dynamics around anti-imperialist struggle and postcolonial nation-building throughout the 20th century, particularly in the two biggest Asian countries: India and China.  

Prior to Independence, India was controlled by the British Empire, which favored policies that extracted wealth from the subcontinent and kept the majority of the population in a state of economic stagnation.  While China was never formally controlled, it still suffered tremendously from imperial military interventions and economic concessions to foreign powers.  Resistance to imperialism was the foundation of South Asian politics during the first half of the 1900s.  Part of this foundation was engagement with science and technology, seen by nationalist militants as both a means by which to fight imperialism, as well as an important set of tools whose full potential was stifled by foreign powers.         

In India, politically-minded scientists agitated for more autonomy from the British Empire on research matters, while political militants sought to mobilize science and technology to kick-start industrialization by and for Indians.  Some young nationalists migrated for short periods of time to study science and engineering in the West, in order to help bring back useful technical knowledge; for example, Ishwar Das Varshnei studied engineering in Tokyo and MIT from 1902 to 1905, before returning to India to contribute to the Swadeshi movement by setting up a glass factory and training other industrial entrepreneurs.  Even close associates of Gandhi -- who was skeptical of science-based modernity, and the benefits of industrialization—sought to utilize technical knowledge for the benefit of the independence movement.  T.M. Shah, for example, went to one of Gandhi’s nationalist schools, and then went on to study electrical engineering at MIT, and subsequently spent several stints in jail—including a period of 1.5 years in 1942, after he joined a pro-independence strike at an iron and steel plant.  When serious plans for governing an independent state started being crafted in the late 1930s, science and technology were given special considerations.

The political history of Chinese science looks similar.  Nationalist-minded science and engineering students in the US founded the Science Society in the early 1910s, and grew through the 1911 revolution, the overthrow of the Chinese monarchy, the May Fourth Movement of 1919 and the New Culture Movement of the 1920s--all of which reinforced the syncretic relationship between anti-imperialist politics and technical study and work.  The society grew its networks and influence in Chinese politics, even during World War II, the Japanese occupation, and the civil war.  It was eventually absorbed into the communist government’s Chinese Academy of Sciences, along with many of its founding members.

The defeat of imperialism in the late 1940s meant that India and China could truly embark on the mission of building up indigenous skills in science and technology.  Both nations developed new education systems that prioritized technical knowledge during the 1950s and 1960s.  India began rolling out its famous Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT), while China overhauled and expanded its existing system of higher education to focus on engineering.      

The fusion of science and engineering with anti-imperialist politics also carried over into the new postcolonial era. Producing scientists and engineers was seen as a critical part of recovering from the stagnation and decay of the imperial era, and a way to consolidate economic autonomy from the former imperial powers.  

In India, the political dimensions of science and engineering was clear from the location of the first IIT, which was formerly the infamous Hijli Detention Camp -- a prison established by the British in 1930 to incarcerate the growing number of anti-imperialist militants across South Asia.  An imperial gulag was transformed into a domestic university; a symbol of repressive British rule was replaced with a symbol for an independent, educated, and scientific India.    

Freedom from imperialist subjugation--achieved by protracted and militant political movements-- allowed for decades of postcolonial education policy emphasizing science and technology.  However, despite these radical roots, the political character of Asian techno-science slowly faded away, even as more and more people graduated with science and engineering degrees.  After the 1960s and 1970s, hostility to the West eased, and the state-socialist development model that had carried over from the anti-imperialist movements became increasingly eclipsed by free-market capitalism.  This paved the way for the retreat of a politicized understanding of science and technology.  In any case, by the time the US immigration system began opening up, India and China had developed widespread education systems and had hundreds of thousands of ambitious scientists and engineers, who drove the the large spike in US immigration from Asia from the 1980s and onward.    

Even if the radical movements of the mid-century are no longer the driving forces of Asian entry into science and technology fields, it is nonetheless clear that such politics laid the foundations for perceived Asian success in America today, and it is beyond time for Asian American progressives to reclaim and reaffirm these politics.  In light of this history, those who talk about how minorities need to stop talking about racism, and simply emulate Asian success, are asking for an irreconcilable contradiction.  “Asian success” is rooted in a history of political militancy and anti-racism, that put scientific and technological development and education at the center of their strategies, and which required major victories against imperial subjugation to fully play out.  If Black and Latinx people are to “follow” the example of Asians, then the first step would be a re-affirmation of ongoing liberation struggles against white supremacy and US imperialism.

Reclaiming the political history of Asian engagement with science and technology will also help us better understand our own politics and identity.  The myth that science and technology are value-neutral and apolitical dominates tech spaces, despite the fact that even a cursory study of history -- like the one above -- demonstrates how such work is anything but.  Reclaiming a radical political foundation for science and engineering could help us have a better understanding of our own labor, identity, and means for solidarity work.

Further Readings

  • “Reconstructing India: Disunity in the Science and Technology for Development Discourse, 1900-1947” by Deepak Kumar, Osiris Vol. 15, 2001, pp 241-257
  • “Saving China Through Science: The Science Society of China, Scientific Nationalism, and Civil Society in Republican China” by Zuoyue Wang, Osiris Vol. 17, 2002, pp 291-322
  • “MIT-Trained Swadeshis: MIT and Indian Nationalism, 1880-1947” by Ross Bassett, Osiris Vol. 24, 2009, p 212-230
  • “Nehruvian Science and Postcolonial India” by David Arnold, Isis Vol. 104, 2013, pp. 260-270
  • “The Chinese developmental state during the Cold War: the making of the 1956 twelve-year science and technology plan” by Zuoyue Wang, History and Technology Vol. 31 No. 3, 2015, pp 180-205



Arjun Pandava


Arjun Pandava is an Indian American living in the San Francisco Bay Area.  He works as a control systems engineer, and maintains the blogs Kurukshetra and Jnana Yuddha.  He is active in movements around environmental/climate justice and labor organizing.