Abdus Salam in China By Pervez Hoodbhoy


PUBLIC interest in Abdus Salam, Pakistan’s legendary theoretical physicist, has surged with the worldwide release of Salam, The First ****** Nobel Laureate, a Netflix documentary. While the movie dwells on his scientific achievements — and even more upon his deep personal disappointments — absent is any mention of his numerous missions to China. The makers of the movie cannot be blamed. Until now, this aspect of his life was largely unknown to even those of his colleagues who knew him well.

But two Chinese physicists, Jinghan Sun and Xiaodong Yin, have just lifted the curtain. Their paper, titled Abdus Salam and China — A View on Salam’s Influence on China’s Science Development Based on His Six Visits to China was published from Beijing in March 2019 in a Chinese language journal. It draws upon transcripts of various meetings held at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. My Chinese physicist friends have kindly translated some parts into English, to be dwelt upon below.

The Sun-Yin paper reveals Salam’s effort to seek China’s help for Pakistan’s nuclear weapon programme. This goes some way towards answering: what was Salam’s role in Pakistan’s bomb project? His many enemies allege he played no role while others claim he spilled Pakistan’s nuclear secrets over to America, Israel, and India. On the other hand, his admirers insist Salam was a man of peace who never wanted nuclear weapons. Where’s the truth?

The facts are now before us: Salam, already an academic superstar in the 1950s, visited China six times and met the highest Chinese leaders. On his first trip in March 1958, Salam accompanied President Ayub Khan as his scientific adviser and had a one-on-one meeting with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai. The two formed a personal bond. At Zhou’s invitation, Salam visited China again in 1959 for a conference. China was not yet a nuclear power and Ayub Khan had no interest in nuclear weapons.

Things changed drastically after East Pakistan separated on Dec 16, 1971. Barely six weeks later, on Jan 20, 1972, president Zulfikar Ali Bhutto convened a meeting of Pakistani scientists in Multan. An emotional Bhutto exhorted them to make an atomic bomb, a desire he had first articulated in 1965. Salam was present and also spoke.

From Sun-Yin we learn that subsequently Bhutto sent Salam to China in 1972 to seek China’s help with nuclear weapons technology. On page 120 the authors say that Salam emphasised his third trip was “not an ordinary visit”. In his meeting with Zhou on the evening of Sept 5, 1972, Salam made his upfront request for nuclear assistance.

Zhou’s recorded reply was circumspect: “The (Chinese) Academy of Sciences needs to study this carefully and make preparations. We will send some people over to you for experiences and technology.” It is unclear if the authors are inserting their own opinion when they write: “Salam did not accomplish his objective … although China was very hospitable, it was also extremely cautious.”

But a recent article by Dr Yangyang Cheng of Cornell University emphasises that two months after Salam’s visit a Chinese team led by Jiang Shengjie attended the opening ceremony of KANUPP, the Canadian nuclear power plant gifted to Pakistan. A chemist and nuclear engineer, Jiang played an important role in the Chinese nuclear weapons programme and was deputy director of the Atomic Energy Institute in Beijing.

Salam took on the bomb project but didn’t get into design details — the physics of nuclear implosions was old hat and he was busy chasing bigger fish. So in late September 1972 he summoned his former student Riazuddin (died 2013) to his office at the ICTP in Trieste, Italy. Riazuddin, my senior colleague, had founded the physics department at Quaid-e-Azam University and was intellectually well equipped for the task.

Salam instructed Riazuddin to create a group of theoreticians for understanding the physics of nuclear implosions. PAEC chairman Munir Ahmad Khan, with whom Salam had a warm relationship, agreed. Riazuddin — who received the prestigious Hilal-i-Pakistan after the 1998 nuclear tests — dutifully obeyed. How it all worked out can be found in Riazuddin’s memoirs, to be published soon.

Were inputs from Riazuddin’s group important? The Americans claim Pakistan possessed detailed blueprints of the nuclear weapons China had tested in the 1960s. One set was confiscated in 2004 from the ship BBC Cargo intercepted on route to Libya. Other nuclear materials sold by Dr A.Q. Khan were also captured. Gen Musharraf had subsequently ordered Dr. A.Q. Khan to apologise on PTV.

But even if Pakistan had these blueprints, they would have been useless without a sound understanding of the underlying theoretical principles — Libyans possessing the same blueprints could do nothing with them. For Pakistan a design template together with physics knowledge made the task much easier. The second step — tuning weapons for different yields and creating different warhead options — is then a relatively small increment.

That Salam palmed off Pakistan’s nuclear secrets to other countries is a flat lie created by those very persons who were actually into this business and were thereafter exposed. He was not involved in the bomb’s development work (except in a broad sense) and knew no technical secrets.

Nevertheless, Salam was in for a big shock; 1974 turned his life upside down. He was devastated when his Ahmadi community was declared non-Muslim by Bhutto’s government. Earlier it was possible to be an Ahmadi as well as a Pakistani nationalist. Although Salam tried valiantly to remain both, his attitude towards the atomic bomb did gradually change. Eventually, he saw it as an existential threat to humankind.

To end on a side note: among my life’s countless regrets, major and minor, is that I never summoned the courage to engage with Salam on the bomb issue. From 1984, continuing until two to three years before his death in 1996, he and I had intermittently discussed many issues — social, political, and scientific — but never this. Did he regret his earlier involvement? He was certainly aware that I often spoke and wrote against all nuclear weapons (including Pakistan’s). Though I suspected Salam’s feelings had changed, I felt myself too junior to ask.