Thirty years ago today, on January 31, 1979, the United States and the People's Republic of China (PRC) signed a formal agreement to cooperate in the field of high-energy physics. In the period leading up to the signing, informal cooperation had been blossoming, encouraged in part by the 1969 findings of the US Atomic Energy Commission's High Energy Physics Advisory Panel (HEPAP), and in part by the growing enthusiasm for high-energy physics (HEP) of the PRC science community.
The 1969 HEPAP, chaired by Professor Victor Weisskopf (director-general of CERN, 1961-1966), stated unequivocally that
Scientific contacts and collaborations serve the cause of peace and the improvement of relations between nations.
In addition, the Panel put forth the then-novel idea that HEP is, for a variety of reasons, particularly well-suited to international collaboration.
The Panel reasoned that, because of its fundamental nature, HEP assists countries in the development of technology; because it is basic and not applied science, it requires fewer security restrictions; because its instrumentation is expensive, there are economies of scale to be realized through international partnerships in HEP; and, because senior staff in HEP in many countries were at that time in good communication with their own governments, they could provide a "useful channel" for the exchange of ideas among national leaders.
Prior to the 1979 formal US-PRC agreement, there had been international collaborations involving US laboratories, but there had never been any major joint construction projects, nor direct US participation in HEP development activities in other countries.
At that time, enthusiasm for HEP was high in the PRC: they had no major HEP facility, but they were determined to build one. Zhang Wenyu, a US-educated physicist and former University of Minnesota faculty member, visited SLAC in November 1972 in his role as a senior member of the PRC's Institute of Atomic Energy. His mission was to explore the best approach for China to enter the world of accelerator-based HEP. Zhang followed up his individual visit by leading a delegation of PRC scientists on a tour of US physics labs in 1973. Subsequent visits back and forth between delegations from both countries led to the historic 1979 agreement, signed by President Carter's Secretary of Energy James Schlesinger and PRC Vice Premier Fang Yi.
In the joint press communiqué issued for the occasion, the two parties affirmed that:
The two sides consider that the differences in their social systems should not constitute an obstacle to their strengthening friendly relations and cooperation. They are resolved to work toward this end, and they firmly believe that such cooperation is in the interest of their two peoples and also that of peace and stability in the world and in the Asia-Pacific region in particular.
As recounted by W. K. H. "Pief" Panofsky in his memoir, the first major product of this agreement was the successful construction of the Beijing Electron-Positron Collider (BEPC I).