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The Least Realistic Part of “The Martian?” China. And Why That Matters.


By now, you’ve likely seen or, at the least, heard about the critically acclaimed, space-themed blockbuster hit “The Martian.” Perhaps you have read the equally acclaimed book off of which the film is based. If neither of these apply to you, stop what you’re doing right this instant and go find it at your local bookstore or movie theater – you’re in for a real treat. “The Martian” is the latest in a series of high-budget, high-profile space films – 2013’s “Gravity,” Ron Howard’s “Apollo 13,” and Stanley Kubrick’s iconic, pre-Apollo-era “2001: A Space Odyssey” come to mind – which have served to excite the general public about space exploration, demonstrating through gripping plots and incredible imagery the many challenges, dangers, and triumphs that space travel entails. Dealing in themes resonant with both the human condition and our civilization’s technological capabilities – and technological failures – “The Martian” embodies the notion and interplay of “man and machine” which has driven the United States through the Space Age. Its no small wonder that NASA has used the film as a centerpiece in its publicity efforts for an eventual real-life mission to Mars.

"The Martian" - one of the most realistic space movies ever made, for the most part.

“The Martian” – one of the most realistic space movies ever made… for the most part. Credit: Twentieth Century Fox.

Above all other selling points, “The Martian” has been touted as being one of the most technically and scientifically realistic space movies ever released, perhaps even the most. The book’s author, Andy Weir, spent years doing research into the intricacies of a human Mars mission, along with details on orbital mechanics, biology, and NASA technology, prior to beginning his writing. Yet the effort to make “The Martian” a scientifically accurate story extended beyond simple research. In order to make the film as close to real-life as possible, the film team partnered with NASA, which provided significant consulting during the movie’s filming. The United States’ space agency answered hundreds of questions – on a weekly basis – on everything from radioisotope systems to the look of potential Mars habitations. NASA also sent hundreds of Mars images and images of its facilities to the film team, to help them design the most realistic sets possible. This marked what is probably the closest collaboration between NASA and Hollywood in history, and the effort definitely paid off – most, if not all, of the film’s few inaccuracies involve elements key in the development of the plot; that is, most of what’s unrealistic about “The Martian” is so because the story needed it to be. Even then, unless you’re a rocket engineer or a planetary scientist, most of these inaccuracies probably passed by unnoticed.

Yet there’s one glaring inaccuracy in “The Martian” that I, being a bit of a space policy buff, couldn’t help but notice; and while admittedly a crucial part of the plot, which the movie couldn’t do without, there are alternatives which could’ve been substituted in its place so as to make the movie more realistic. That said, I think the presence of this inaccuracy is a great thing, for a number of reasons. I’m talking about the subplot involving China’s space agency, the CNSA.

The CNSA (China's space agency) logo. Source: Spacenews

The CNSA (China’s space agency) logo. Source: Spacenews

The premise of China’s involvement in “The Martian” is, without giving away too many spoilers, simple enough. A NASA rocket carrying critical supplies to an astronaut stranded on Mars explodes during launch because of rushed preparations. In the panic which follows, there’s a miraculous turn of events – the Chinese announce that, unbeknownst to anyone, the CNSA has a secret rocket booster capable of making the journey to Mars which is already prepped and ready to go. NASA jumps on the offer, lest a stranded American astronaut die of starvation some 249 million miles from home, and the Chinese send their rocket, laden with supplies, skyward. Toward the movie’s end, the CNSA’s leadership is seen standing next to NASA’s administration, celebrating a positive conclusion to the harrowing series of events. In the book, the Chinese are rewarded with a seat on the next Mars mission for the help they provided NASA. It seems to be a watershed moment in international space relations, a testament to the benefits and goodwill that cooperation in outer space can bring.

And, in real life, it would never happen. That’s because, according to present day policy, it just can’t happen.

Space Cooperation with China? Read the Rules.

One could write a doctoral thesis on the myriad reasons why the cooperation seen between the United States and China in ‘The Martian” would never play out in real life. Arguments of geopolitics, foreign policy, military superiority and secrecy, and sensitive technologies abound when people discuss the factors behind a preclusion to Sino-American cooperation in space. Yet there’s a far simpler and far more definitive answer to why NASA would never accept a Chinese offer for an emergency resupply mission: the United States’ space agency is explicity prohibited, by law, from cooperating in any form or fashion with the Chinese.

In April 2011, the 112th Congress of the United States of America passed Public Law 112-55, SEC. 539. Written into this law was language which stated the following:

“None of the funds made available by this Act may be used for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) or the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to develop, design, plan, promulgate, implement, or execute a bilateral policy, program, order, or contract of any kind to participate, collaborate, or coordinate bilaterally in any way with China.”

A Chinese "Long March 9" rocket. Don't expect to see it launching anything involving the United States. Source: CSNA

A Chinese “Long March 9” rocket. Don’t expect to see it launching anything involving the United States. Source: CNSA

This is, in effect, a blanket ban on any cooperation between the United States’ space program and China. So, while other space-fearing nations such as the UK and Russia are working jointly with China on a number of potential future missions, NASA is banning Chinese scientists from astronomy conferences. China’s calls for international cooperation on a future space station get no response from NASA. So to think that NASA would gladly accept any Chinese offer to cooperate in space, even to help rescue a stranded astronaut, is, to say the least, unrealistic. For doing so would force the Federal Agency to break Federal law.

And, unlike the renegade astronauts in the film who refuse to take ‘no’ for an answer (and to whom this point also applies), I highly doubt that NASA would choose to just “do it anyway.”

So Why Choose China?

So “The Martian,” in both print and film version, represents a dedicated effort to make the most realistic and accurate space story ever created. It was written, filmed, and produced in close collaboration with NASA, which provided the production team much guidance and information on all things space. Then why is China – perhaps the most unrealistic option out there – the country that was chosen to swoop in and save NASA in its time of need? After all, there are far more realistic options out there that could reasonably substitute in China’s place – Russia, for example, which is noticeably absent throughout the film. The Russians have a history of cooperation with the United States in space, both in a limited fashion during the Soviet era and to a significant extent in recent times with the International Space Station. They have a number of rockets capable of launching a payload to Mars. Even if the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, has had to deal with a number of high-profile failures and institutional issues in recent years, at least it isn’t against the law to work with them.

The answer, I suspect, lay in marketing motivations and what I’ve termed the “congressional movie-goer.”

"The Martian" - bound to be a big hit in China. Credit: Twentieth Century Fox.

“The Martian” – bound to be a big hit in China. Credit: Twentieth Century Fox.

As for the marketing: China is expected to be the film’s largest income source overseas. Something tells me that Chinese moviegoers would be more than happy to flock to a film which paints them in an entirely benign and glamorous light – in the print version of “The Martian,” but not the film, at least some of China’s space leadership have reservations about helping the Americans, citing geopolitical and military concerns – in order to see the Chinese space program rescue the Americans. The Chinese space program, as some scholars have noted, is a source of significant pride for many of China’s citizens. Playing off that pride by having China serve as a rather faultless protagonist in the film is therefore quite a brilliant business decision by Twentieth Century Fox. We’ll need to wait until October 22nd, when the film opens in Chinese theaters, to see whether this really was a motivation behind China’s presence in the film, and whether it indeed payed off.

Yet the greater significance to China’s role in “The Martian” is, I believe, that it serves as a subtle yet targeted lobbying move aimed at the “congressional movie-goer;” that is, aimed at members of the policy-making world who go watch the film. The film is an attempt to make space cooperation with the Chinese appear more benign and appealing; it is an example of the hypothetical good that could come out of working with China. The hope is, I would suspect, that members of Congress or their staff who go watch the film will leave wondering if the cooperation ban written into law is really so rational after all, and whether something should be done to make it at least a little less stringent. So that, perhaps, China actually could help NASA if the time or need ever came.

"The Martian" - bound to change Congressional policy?

“The Martian” – bound to change Congressional policy? Credit: Twentieth Century Fox.

The motivation behind this is rather clear: NASA does not like being barred from cooperating with China. The United States’ space agency has made that much clear time and time again. NASA scientists have boycotted past conferences in protest against the ban. The agency has broached the issue of cooperation with the Chinese to the White House on at least a number of occasions. NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden has written blog posts that implicitly hint at the need for future cooperation with China in space activities. Bolden went as far as to say that the ban on Sino-American cooperation in space was “temporary” during the recent International Astronautical Conference – about as thinly veiled a statement of hope that a U.S. government employee required to represent American policy during international events can make, given the circumstances.

Yet, as space policy expert John Logsdon pointed out to space.com, getting the United States to work with China in space will require a long policy battle, one that extends beyond NASA’s ability to influence events. He writes: “The first step is the White House working with congressional leadership to get current, unwise restrictions on such cooperation revoked.” Changes to the United States’ Federal law will require Congressional action and leadership, and the views of Congress, if the current ban says anything, do not always correspond with the views of NASA or the space community. If NASA hasn’t been able to convince Congress to change policy through its lobbying efforts alone, then perhaps some blockbuster magic – brought into fruition through, in part, NASA’s support and suggestions – might just do the trick. After all, NASA has played “The Martian” up in its publicity (and lobbying) efforts to win support for an eventual Mars mission. Its not too unbelievable to suspect that its doing the same when it comes to cooperation with the Chinese.

Why it all Matters.

Cooperation with China in the realm of space will be crucial for the United States if it hopes to maintain its leadership as the world’s eminent space power in the 21st century. There are some who disagree, citing geopolitical reasons, military rationales, or economic/technological concerns. They raise valid and understandable points, and any arguments to the contrary should not serve to underscore the importance of preserving American security and superiority against foreign rivals, especially those rapidly rising on the international stage. Yet the fact remains: the Chinese space program, along with China proper, is rapidly developing in capabilities and ambition, while the United States’ space program faces a period of stagnation brought on by low budgets and inconsistent goals. Mr. Bolden is correct in his blog posts: if the United States hopes to accomplish a Mars mission in the coming decades, or any other mission of major scale and scope for that matter, it will require the help and cooperation of the international community, including the world’s third most developed space program – China’s. There is a significant contradiction in the United States continuing to refuse to work with China on any matters related to space, even if they are for a purely civil, exploratory purpose, while also declaring itself the world’s leading space-fearing power. Meanwhile, other space players, such as Russia and the European Space Agency, with whom the United States will gladly work, are looking toward China for possible joint missions in the future. The United States is ceding its place as a true space leader, as the country capable of coordinating and overseeing an international effort in space akin to its role on the International Space Station, because it is refusing to cooperate with one of the most significant players at the table.

There are also the arguments to be made about the general “nature” of space as it pertains to international relations. Space is one of the few, if not the only, realms where rivals and competitors can come together and work in joint cooperation toward a peaceful goal. Humanity’s activity in outer space represents a shared spirit, that of reaching for what lays beyond and of exploring the unknown. This is a motivation which transcends ideology or nation. The impetus for exploration on the part of Chinese scientists and mission planners is the same for NASA’s. Cooperation in space is symbolic of the broader humanity, and the more fundamental pioneering spirit, that exists in all of us, regardless of our country of origin or economic system of choice. At the least, NASA should be enabled to cooperate with China on matters of exploration, so as to unlock the greater potential of that spirit which as of today is being kept in. The effects of a “handshake in space” have far reaching consequences, after all.

The "Apollo-Soyuz Handshake," a key moment in U.S.-Soviet space relations.

The “Apollo-Soyuz Handshake,” a key moment in U.S.-Soviet space relations. Source: NASA

The 1975 “Apollo-Soyuz” mission, the first joint United States-Soviet mission in space, was marked by a handshake between astronaut and cosmonaut in orbit. More than a simple rendezvous maneuver, it was symbolic of the broader detente that was occurring between the two Cold War adversaries at the time. Sharing mission information and precious spacecraft technology with the Soviets – the same fears which today are keeping NASA engineers from working with their Chinese counterparts – entailed vulnerability on both countries’ parts. Sharing technology could lead to the recognition of key weaknesses or shortcomings; it could give the opponent the upper hand. Those very vulnerabilities, if seen in another light, were the underpinnings of a more peaceful world in the making – they represented trust. It is hard, in this current geopolitical environment and this present day, to “trust” the Chinese in many aspects. They are the United States’ quickly emerging rival in the Asia-Pacific; they are a developing military competitor; they are a significant source of foreign espionage and theft. Yet these are the messy realities of our international system, and are perhaps unavoidable. There are areas abound where differences can and will divide the United States and China, where our two countries will have disagreements, perhaps even tensions. We are headed, with policies that preclude cooperation and mutual support, toward another chilly “Cold War.” Yet space, as the Apollo-Soyuz “handshake” demonstrated powerfully in 1975, offers the opportunity to set aside our Earthly differences for a bigger and more timeless goal – that of exploration, that of discovery. And, to a degree and in its own way, cooperation in space, the building of trust in space, trickles down into Earthly affairs as well.

With this in mind, perhaps the presence of the Chinese in “The Martian” – as faultless protagonists, no less – is one of the movie’s stronger aspects, despite its glaring inaccuracy. For, perhaps its important that we recognize that cooperation is always stronger than confrontation and containment and strike the ban in place on working in space with our future Asian rival. After all, we may one day have a Martian who will owe them his life.

China: A Global Power, In Space

Exploring the Use of the Chinese Space Program as a Tool to Establish China as a “Major Power”

China Space ProgramIntroduction

As the People’s Republic of China continues to develop its economic, military, and technological capabilities, and as China begins to assert itself more aggressively on the world stage, the Chinese leadership has sought to portray the country as being among the world’s major powers. It appears evident that achieving “great power” status is a fundamental goal for China’s fourth generation leadership, as doing so represents to the Chinese people the overcoming of China’s historical period of “national humiliation,” bolsters the Chinese Communist Party’s political legitimacy, and benefits China in its push for regional hegemony in the Asia-Pacific. China’s quest for global status, a major characteristic of the foreign policy and domestic rhetoric of the current Xi Jinping administration, can be seen reflected by the use of the rapidly developing Chinese space program as a tool to promote and enhance China’s standing at home and influence abroad. With a growing budget, growing ambitions, increasingly advanced capabilities, and through the formation of significant organizational linkages with the Chinese government, it is clear that China’s space program enjoys support from the main political organs of the Chinese state – the PLA, the CCP, and the Civil Service – and is becoming a prominent feature of China’s rise. Underlying this support is the belief that maintaining an active space program is a symbol of great power status and brings with it the economic, technological, cultural, and geopolitical benefits which great powers enjoy. This paper analyzes the domestic and international significance of China’s space program along with the implications of its current capabilities and future plans. By exploring the connections between the effects of China’s space program and the Chinese leadership’s broader strategic and rhetorical goals, the use of the program as an effective tool for establishing China as a global power is explained. Understanding these connections, as well as the overall significance of China’s space program, is vital for a nuanced understanding of China’s rise as a major international actor and reveals the vision which Chinese leaders have for the country’s status as a global power in the coming decades.

A History of the Chinese Space Program

Although the pace of China’s space program’s development has quickened considerably over the past two decades, the program itself is among the oldest in the world. With an origin the mid-1950s, roughly concurrent with the beginnings of the American and Soviet programs, the Chinese space program has had a history reflective of the PRC’s evolution. Due to its military origins and the nature of Communist China during the Mao era, much of the early history of China’s space program remains shrouded in mystery, making it difficult to discern the relationship between the program’s designers, the PLA, and the political establishment; indeed, some analysts have called the Chinese program one of the “last secret space programs.” Nonetheless, the overall course of development can be tracked using what information is available.[i] Initially, Mao Zedong sponsored the program, seizing upon the political and military message sent by achieving space flight during the “space race” of the 1950s and 1960s. Driven by the influence and expertise of Dr. Tsien Hsue-shen, an American-educated rocket scientist, and technical assistance from the Soviet Union, the program had ambitious early goals, including plans for manned spaceflight.[ii] An emphasis was placed on the development of ballistic missiles, which were linked to the development of China’s nuclear arsenal and overall military aims. Due to its initially military character, the space program was placed under the supervision of the PLA.[iii] However, the cutting off of Soviet aid as a result of the Sino-Soviet split, the enormous disruptions caused by the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, and general technological underdevelopment delayed China’s entry into space. It was not until 1970 that China launched its first satellite, named “The East is Red 1,”[iv] using a modified intercontinental ballistic missile. Doing so, it became, after the United States, the Soviet Union, France, and Japan, the fifth country to place a satellite in orbit. Plans continued to be proposed for manned spaceflight through the 1960s, but the Chinese leadership, suffering from the consequences of political and economic upheaval, chose instead to limit development to new launch vehicles and space technologies. Although the government continued to float the idea of a manned program during the 1970s it lacked the economic wherewithal necessary to sustain such efforts, which never materialized. However, although the emphasis on the space program’s military application continued, the program began to explore the development and utilization of communications satellites and recoverable film satellites.[v] A number of military satellites, about which little is known, were also flown during the last years of the Mao era.[vi]

A “second phase” in the Chinese space program began with the death of Mao and the ascension of Deng Xiaoping to leadership in China. With Deng’s focus on economic growth and revitalization, the space program became linked to the national goals of economic and technological development. As such, there was a separation of the military and civilian spheres of space activity, with the efforts of the latter focused more explicitly on economic development.[vii] With the production of the upgraded “Long March 2” launch vehicle, the Chinese leadership decided to pursue the launching of communications satellites and expanding into the lucrative commercial launch market. 12 launch vehicle variants of the Long March 2 began development and multiple launch sites were built across China.[viii] In 1984, the first Chinese communication satellite, the “East is Red 2,” was placed into orbit.[ix] In 1985, China began conducting commercial launches. China conducted 18 commercial launches between 1985 and 2000, usually at prices undercutting American and European competition. However, the 1996 crash of a rocket carrying a US-built communications satellite, coupled with American concerns over improper technology transfers, led to a general embargo of Chinese commercial launches.[x]

Some scholars point to Ronald Reagan’s 1983 speech announcing the Strategic Defense initiative as providing the impetus for the resurrection of China’s manned space program. The Chinese leadership, searching for a way to respond to the United States’ renewed space efforts, decided again to explore the possibility for manned missions.[xi] Throughout the 1980s, through the outline of “Plan 863,” which sought to identify fields where China could narrow the development gap with more advanced nations, China moved toward the development of technologies necessary to sustain such a program.[xii] In 1992, the CCP Standing Committee gave the go-ahead for “Project 921,” which would eventually become China’s manned program. Technology transfer between China and Russia, in addition to agreements involving the training of astronauts and experts, led to the development of the Shenzhou “Divine Craft” spacecraft, which closely resembled the Russian “Soyuz” spacecraft. Meanwhile, new launch facilities and heavy-launch variants of the Long March rocket were developed to support the spacecraft.[xiii] Starting in 1999, the Shenzhou spacecraft began a series of unmanned launches testing and certifying various systems.[xiv] Finally, in October 15, 2003, Shenzhou 5, carrying Lieutenant Colonel Yang Liwei, was launched, making China the third country to launch a human into space.

Shenzhou 6, the second manned Chinese mission, was launched in 2005, and Shenzhou 7, launched in 2008, carried the first three-person crew and conducted the first Chinese extravehicular activity. Meanwhile, plans were developed for lunar operations throughout the early 2000s. By 2004, the State Council and CCP Central Committee had directed the formation of leading small group for lunar exploration, placing it outside the purview of the PLA, and in 2007 Chang’e 1, a lunar orbiter, was placed into orbit around the moon, where it remained for approximately 1 year. In 2010, Chang’e 2, a second lunar orbiter with advanced imaging and mapping capabilities, was launched.[xv] An anti-satellite missile test conducted in 2007, which intercepted and destroyed a defunct Chinese weather satellite in low Earth orbit, demonstrated the PLA’s evolving military application of space technologies.[xvi] As part of China’s multiphase plan to construct a major space station by 2020, begun in the late 2000s, the experimental space station Tiangong 1, known as “Heavenly Palace,” was launched in 2011.[xvii] Shenzhou 9, launched in 2012 carrying China’s first female astronaut, conducted the first docking with Tiangong 1, and Shenzhou 10, China’s most recent manned mission launched in 2013, spent a number of days carrying out experiments while docked with Tiangong 1. Yunghuo 1, a Chinese Mars exploration probe, sought to demonstrate China’s capacity for interplanetary space activity, and would’ve made China the first Asia-Pacific power to visit Mars. Launched in 2011 attached to a Russian probe, the mission failed when the probe failed in Earth orbit.[xviii] However, Chang’e 3, a lunar lander launched in late 2013, made China’s first successful lunar landing. It deployed and operated a rover, named Yutu, on the lunar surface for a month.[xix] In addition to the Chinese space program’s manned and lunar efforts, it has developed and deployed a range of satellite during the 2000s and 2010s. Indeed, the bulk of China’s current, high-tech surveillance, imaging, meteorological, oceanographic, and navigation satellites have been launched within the last two decades.[xx]

As can be seen by its history, the Chinese space program has reflected the evolution and growth of the modern Chinese state, and has long served as a tool to advance its leadership’s rhetorical and strategic goals. As early as the 1950s, Mao sought to use the program to assert Chinese technological and strategic superiority and present a challenge to the growth of American hegemony in space. Although the turmoil of the Mao era prevented the realization of many of the programs lofty initial goals, the application of developed launch vehicles as ballistic and intercontinental weapons platforms nonetheless advanced China’s strategic capabilities and goals. During the Deng era, the expansion of the space program toward economic pursuits reflected the Chinese leadership’s emphasis on economic growth and development. Furthermore, in a number of speeches, including a key speech in 1978, Deng emphasized the space program’s role in achieving wider social and economic goals in China. The development theme and motivation attached to China’s space program has since connected to the Communist party’s various domestic development platforms, such as the “Four Modernizations” campaign and Xi Jinping’s “Chinese Dream”. [xxi] With China’s meteoric economic growth through the 1990s and into the modern day, the space program has undergone equally significant development. Space policy “White Papers” released by the Chinese government through the 2000s emphasized the role of the space program in “upholding the principle of independence, self-reliance, and self-renovation” and laid out its use in “revitalizing the country with science and education and that of sustainable development,” further reinforcing the program’s connection to the leadership’s development rhetoric.[xxii] The contemporary connections between the Chinese space program and the Chinese leadership’s goals and rhetoric will be explored later in this paper. However, to better understand these connections, the current capabilities of the future plans must be described in order to recognize the Chinese leadership’s goals and vision for the program.

Current Capabilities and Future Plans

With a long history of development and a period of rapid expansion over the past two decades, China’s capabilities in outer space are currently sophisticated, extend into the military and civilian spheres, and encompass both manned and unmanned spaceflight. The centerpiece of China’s space program is the Shenzhou spacecraft, which enables China the ability for manned flight. Over the course of 5 manned missions, China has demonstrated its ability to sustain complex, long-duration human spaceflight and conduct scientific experiments with the Shenzhou craft. “Heavenly Palace 1,” China’s first space station, has, through a series of manned and unmanned visits by the Shenzhou spacecraft, proven that China can conduct in-orbit docking and space station experiments, paving the way for future larger, manned stations. China’s space transportation infrastructure includes a reliable family of launch systems which deploy payloads into space for military, civilian, and commercial users. Four main variants of the Long March rocket can put payloads into varying altitudes and orbital inclinations, and numerous sub-variants can accommodate different types of payloads. The LM-2F, China’s most powerful launch vehicle to date, can launch more than 8,000 kilograms into Earth orbit. China also currently has a number of space operations centers, including satellite launch centers at Jiuquan, Taiyuan, and Xichang, and a space launch center on Hainan Island which serves as a base for payloads associated with the manned space program. A number of space academies and science centers located across China assist with technological research, development, and training.[xxiii]

Through the launch of Chang’e 1, 2, and 3, China has shown its capacity for lunar orbit, landing, and operations. Meanwhile, China’s current satellite fleet serves a number of uses and applications. Electro-optical imaging satellites enable high-resolution imaging and surveillance of the Earth, and over 13 remote sensing satellites with civilian and military imaging capabilities launched since 2006. Synthetic aperture radar satellites and electronic reconnaissance satellites enable the tracking and imaging of ground and maritime targets, and can serve dual civilian and military purposes as a disaster-tracking platform and as a surveillance platform. A growing fleet of oceanographic satellites support disaster warning, recovery, and response efforts, and help enable the exploitation of maritime resources and fishing. Meteorological satellites provide valuable weather information for civilian and scientific consumption and lend aid to military operations and planning. Meanwhile, a limited but growing network of data relay satellites have expanded the scope of China’s communications satellite program Finally, the development of a fleet of experimental microsatellites have enabled China to augment its existing space assets with cheaper, smaller satellites. Microsatellites have been viewed as a platform for a wide range of technologies, including observation, communications, and military counterspace operations. [xxiv]

As security analysts in the West routinely point out, China’s space program also supports PLA aims. The dual-use of much of China’s space infrastructure for civilian and military application blends the division between distinctly civilian space assets and military space assets.[xxv] China’s current space assets boost the PLA’s capacity in numerous ways. Analysis of the Shenzhou program has led to conclusions that that they incorporated military elements, with the spacecraft carrying various imaging and tracking equipment for military surveillance.[xxvi] Launch platforms such as the Long March rockets, but also including an array of intercontinental ballistic missiles, provide the PLA with global striking capabilities. Navigation, observation, and communications satellites augment the PLA’s campaign planning and operations, and help refine the targeting capability of its missile-based weapons. Tracking satellites allow for the monitoring of foreign space assets and provide an early warning against space debris, which could pose potential problems for the Chinese space fleet in the event of space-based warfare. A network of ballistic missile warning satellites provide further early warning against the launch of foreign ballistic missiles, and enable precise targeting for anti-missile weapons platforms. Finally, space-borne and ground-launched anti-satellite missiles, such as the one tested in 2007, provide the PLA an offensive capability against foreign country’s space assets.[xxvii]

Among the future plans for China’s civilian space program are an expanded lunar program, the construction of a large-scale space station, the development of more launch vehicles, and the development of more advanced satellite technology. By 2020, China hopes to conduct a series of lunar landings under the Chang’e program, including sample-return missions bringing back lunar soil.[xxviii] Some analysts see the expansion of this program as the precursor for large-scale, manned lunar missions in the 2020s or 2030s.[xxix] With the projected 2015 launch of Tiangong 2 and late 2010s launch of the larger Taigong-3, China will have the capacity for expanding testing of new technologies for large space stations and long-term living conditions for astronauts. The three Tiangong modules serve as a precursor to a fully functioning, continuously-manned, large-scale space station planned for construction by the end of the decade. Significantly, the construction of this space station is planned to occur concurrently with the decommissioning of the American-led International Space Station. Some see the this large-scale space station as a base of support for the Chinese lunar program, while others argue that it supports the leadership’s goals of boosting national pride and national standing.[xxx] China has also committed to the development of a series of new, upgraded launch vehicles, including the planned Long March 5, 6, and 7 rockets. The Long March 5 is planned to be a heavy-lift launcher capable of carrying heavy payloads into high Earth orbit. Additionally, a number of Chinese tracking, telemetry, and control centers are scheduled to be upgraded, allowing for the better tracking of an increased number of space assets. Finally, as laid out by recent “White Papers” published by the Chinese government, plans are in place to significantly increase China’s fleet of Earth observation satellites while upgrading their capabilities. The constellation of China’s navigation and communications satellites are expected to be upgraded as well, enabling global rather than regional reach.[xxxi]

Again, the future expansion of China’s space program will serve a dual purpose for PLA goals. While information about the PLA’s future plans for space technology is limited, the expansion of its capabilities can be extrapolated from the program’s overall trajectory. Through the expansion and upgrading of China’s space-based surveillance network to include new, high-resolution electro-optical and synthetic aperture radar systems, the PLA will be able to image and track enemy targets at an increased scale and global level. Furthermore, more sophisticated tracking satellites will enhance the targeting ability of the PLA’s missile fleet. This fleet will further be augmented by the development of more, larger-scale launch vehicles, which will be able to deliver weapon payloads with a greater distance. Chinese space technology journals have suggested the development of stealth and camouflage measures for China’s military satellites, which would provide them with effective deterrents and counter-measures against enemy counter-space activity.[xxxii] The development of a microsatellite fleet, meanwhile, will mitigate adversaries’ abilities to effectively destroy China’s space capabilities. Ultimately, these elements fall within China’s military strategy for outer space, which has been garnered from recurring themes in Chinese writings on military space operations. A consensus has developed on achieving “space dominance,” which involves securing information, offensive, and defense superiority in outer space. Maintaining a fleet of observation, warning, and communications satellites allows for uninterrupted operation of information collection, while developing offensive space weapons such as anti-satellite missiles and defensive space measures such as stealth capabilities ensures the survival of China’s space assets and the denial of enemy assets. As can be seen through the plans in place for China’s expanding space program, the PLA is taking active steps towards the realization of this outer space dominance.[xxxiii]

The Chinese space program’s current capabilities in both the civil and military spheres provide China with a diverse array of benefits, and China’s future plans for outer space look to only increase the scope and scale of the space program’s impact. Because of the dual-use application of China’s space technology for military and civil purposes, the expansion of China’s space program will likely continue the growth of China’s domestic and military capabilities. The foreign and domestic implications of China’s space capabilities will be explored later in this paper, but first the organizational structure of the Chinese space program, along with its linkages with the Chinese political establishment and leadership, must be analyzed. By doing so, the Chinese leadership’s support for the space program’s current capabilities and expansion as well as the effects of the program’s organization and decision-making structure on the current and future use of space assets may be revealed.

The Chinese Space Program’s Organization and Political Linkages

Without a structured, centralized agency akin to the United States’ NASA or Russia’s Roscosmos, the Chinese space program’s organization and structure is quite dissimilar to the programs of the West. Rather, with its linkages with the PLA and numerous state-owned corporations, the Chinese space program has taken on a distinctly Chinese structure. During the Mao and Deng eras, the space program fell largely under the leadership of the PLA, although some parts were nominally placed under civilian control; the Commission on Science, Technology, and Industry for National Defense was the main civilian agency involved with China’s space program. Although numerous scientists working on and advocating for China’s commercial launch program and communications satellites came from the civilian sphere, the PLA maintained active control of the program.[xxxiv] In 1991, the State Council formed the Space Leading Group and, in 1993, the Chinese National Space Administration (CNSA), also under the State Council and responsible to the Premier of China, was formed and given the responsibility of administering China’s civilian space program. In 2000, the China Aerospace Corporation (CASC), a state-owned enterprise responsible for the development of China’s space hardware, software, and R&D, was restructured into two entities, the China Aerospace Machinery and Electronics Corporation (CAMEC) and the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASTC). However, the majority of space-related industrial activity is conducted within the CASTC’s organization. Three key organizations under the CASTC handle the majority of space projects – the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST) oversees institutes and facilities related to the development and production of satellites, the China Academy of Launch Technology (CALT) conducts the development of launch vehicles and missiles. The Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology (SAST), which also falls under the CASTC, is also responsible for the development of launch vehicles and satellites. Over 130 other organizations with direct impact on spaceflight fall within the structure of the CASC, as well. Primary among them is the China Great Wall Industry Corporation (CGWIC), which contracts and handles China’s commercial launch and space industry.[xxxv]

The CCP Central Committee, Central Military Commission, and State Council also rely upon the PLA’s General Armaments Department (GAD) for the execution of civil and military space acquisition policies. The GAD is responsible for establishing space defense policies, managing China’s space program, developing technical solutions for operational requirements, and overseeing space research and development. A number of departments within the GAD take on various space-related responsibilities. The S&T Committee consists of working groups that advises the Central Military Commission and civilian leaders on technology acquisition planning and space operations policy. Further working groups work with national leaders on resource allocation and determine which technological hurdles and bottlenecks demand the most attention. At least 10 second level departments within the GAD also support space operations, space asset modernization, and space planning. The Aerospace Equipment Bureau is responsible for charting the PLA’s space communications and surveillance infrastructure. The Electronic and Information Infrastructure Department establishes general research and development strategies and priorities. The Comprehensive Planning Department is responsible for overall space-modernization planning. Furthermore, the GAD Headquarters Department functions as an operational command overseeing space launch, tracking, and control, and oversees China’s various space tracking centers and facilities. Finally, the GAD works closely with China’s space academies and corporations in order to coordinate research and development strategies.[xxxvi]

The diffuse organization of the Chinese space program, along with limited information regarding its decision-making hierarchy, makes it difficult to discern who is really “in control” of the program. The PLA, the civil government, and state corporations all play roles in the development of the program’s military and civil aspects, while the dual-use application of much of China’s civil space assets for military purposes blends the distinction between civilian and military planning and execution. As such, the sources of China’s overall space strategy are not easily identified. Information on the ratios of funding the program receives from the military and from the civilian government is limited, thereby preventing a breakdown and analysis of the program’s emphasized focus. Furthermore, a lack of transparency into the space program’s management system limits analysts’ ability to predict the program’s likely response to a variety of future circumstances. China’s State Council has issued “White Papers” outlining the Chinese space program’s overall policy approach while pledging to make space decisions in a coordinated manner through overall planning. The Communist Party’s Central Committee has also called upon the State Council to enhance its role in policy guidance of space development.[xxxvii] This, combined with the rapid growth of China’s lunar program, overseen by the State Council, has suggested to some an increasing level of civilian control over space program decisions.[xxxviii] However, some scholars argue that the PLA continues to play a large role in the civilian space program, and maintains overall control of the space program’s general direction. They point to the dual-use of China’s civil space technologies for military purposes as indicative of the PLA’s influence. It is suggested that the PLA maintains de facto control over civilian programs in order to ensure their military applicability, despite the de jure authority exercised by the space program’s civilian organs. Additionally, the security benefits of the space program’s military sphere are enough to keep them a priority regardless of economic downturn or space disaster, reinforcing the PLA’s control over funding and decision making. It is argued that, should conflict break out with other space powers such as the United States, the space program’s civilian programs will be placed on the backburner while the PLA ramps up its militarization campaign.[xxxix] Other scholars downplay the PLA’s influence over the space program, stating that the importance of the civil program to the Chinese leadership’s broad domestic, international, and rhetorical strategies is equal to the importance of the military program. Accordingly, they argue that the civilian leadership will continue to decide and support the direction of China’s space program’s non-security related development.[xl]

The difficulties in determining who maintains overall control of the Chinese space program poses problems for Western security and policy analysts, yet a crucial fact is clear – regardless of PLA or civilian control over the program, its development has been deemed important by the Chinese leadership. The cost of China’s manned program has exceeded $2.4 billion, which the CNSA argues is the single most expensive project undertaken by the PRC[xli]. As the expenditure of such sums of money suggests that China’s leaders are confident in the program, it should be expected that the expansion of China’s military space capabilities, its manned exploration efforts, and its fleet of satellites should continue. As the Chinese space program has significant linkages with the main organs of the Chinese state, its rapid growth and expanding capabilities are reflective of an overall support for the program. Indeed, over the past decades, the Chinese leadership’s main figures have actively participated in and demonstrated their enthusiastic support for the program. Chinese President Jiang Zemin is credited with choosing the name for the Shenzhou spacecraft, and his own calligraphy was written on the vehicle during its first orbit around the Earth in 1999. President Hu Jintao watched the launch of Shenzhou 6 in 2005 from its control center in Beijing, while Premier Wen Jaibao called the flight a “glorious and sacred mission.” In 2007, Wen Jaibao argued that the Chang’e lunar mission was of “deep historical significance for raising our international standing and strengthening the force of our ethnic solidarity.” Following Shenzhou 9’s docking with Tiangong 1 in 2012, Hu sent a congratulatory message to China’s space scientists and astronaut crew and later, accompanied by senior party leaders such as Xi Jinping, held a televised phone conversation with the crew. Upon Shenzhou 9’s return to Earth, Wen Jaibao and other senior leaders such as He Guoqiang and Zhou Yongkang watched the landing live. Furthermore, China’s astronauts frequently become ambassadors for the program and the government following their return. The crew of Shenzhou 9 paid a state-sponsored visit to Hong Kong and Macao, two territories recently reincorporated into the PRC, following their successful return and were awarded medals by the CCP’s Central Committee, the State Council, and the Central Military Commission in an October 2012 ceremony. Finally, the Chinese state media frequently mentions the space program’s achievements, highlighting notable “firsts” accomplished by Chinese missions and reinforcing the connections between China’s space program and the government’s messages of technological, economic, and cultural growth.[xlii]

It is thus evident that China’s space program enjoys enthusiastic support from China’s highest leadership and is promoted through the government’s rhetoric and state media. Underlying this support is the perceived benefit that the space program brings domestically and internationally. With a wide range of applications in the civilian and military spheres, the Chinese space program has a significant impact on China domestically and abroad. The Chinese government has sought to develop policies for the program which support its overall strategy and have used the program as a propaganda tool to enhance its message and rhetoric. However, to understand how the Chinese leadership sees and uses the space program as an effective tool for advancing its goals, the domestic and international impact of the program should first be analyzed.

Domestic Significance

The domestic significance of China’s space program is multifold, as it brings both tangible benefits to the Chinese state and people and also reinforces and reflects the Chinese leadership’s political and rhetorical message. China’s space program begets economic growth and development, supports China’s focus on education, science, and technology, and is a source of considerable national pride and unity. The economic and development benefits brought about by China’s space program fit squarely into the government’s campaigns for economic development and prosperity.[xliii] The space program itself employs hundreds of thousands of employees, and the highly-technical and complex nature of the program means that many of the jobs are necessarily high-skill and high-paying. As a result of the linkages between the space program’s main state corporations and the broader Chinese economy, the economic growth brought about through production of spacecraft and associated technology reverberates through China’s industrial sector. The expansion of China’s fleet of communications and navigation satellites have provided for the Chinese people greater access to cell phone, internet, radio, and television communications, which in turn help stimulate the broader Chinese economy. Imaging satellites help provide disaster warning and support disaster relief, saving China considerable amounts of money of relief efforts. Furthermore, these imaging satellites help enable the exploitation of maritime fishing grounds, maritime resources, fertile farming land, and ground-based natural resources, further benefitting the expansion of the Chinese economy.[xliv] These satellites additionally enable easier mapping needed to plan China’s continued urbanization and infrastructure growth. Scientific experiments in space involving technology applicable back on Earth, such as the breeding of crops in space and space medicine, similarly affect the daily lives of Chinese citizens in a positive fashion, as do the spin-off technologies developed from the lessons learned through the use of outer space. The development of China’s commercial launch industry provides domestic companies the ability to cheaply and easily loft their products into Earth orbit, and state income is produced through China’s selling of commercial launches to various domestic and foreign companies. Future plans for the mining of Helium-3 on the moon or valuable resources on near-Earth asteroids could potentially bring in enormous amounts of revenue and keep China’s resource-hungry economy sustained indefinitely.[xlv]

The Chinese space program also reflects and supports the government’s emphasis on education and science. Through the training of qualified space scientists and engineers, the fostering of space science interests in the youth, and the development of space-based education programs, the Chinese space program has gone to great lengths to increase the level of technical and scientific education among the Chinese population. These efforts seem to be successful, as demonstrated by widespread interest in space, science, and technology among the student population. As a result of this interest, higher levels of China’s college students are entering into college science and engineering departments. The broadcasting of television through satellites has supported China’s program of satellite education TV, which the government claims has enabled more than 30 million people to receive college or technical secondary school education since the 1980s.[xlvi] The growth of a generation of highly educated individuals interested in science, technology, and entering high-skill technical fields will enable China’s continued growth as a sophisticated, 21st-century economy in the coming decades. Furthermore, the ability for Chinese academies and universities to launch scientific payloads aboard China’s launch vehicles greatly expands their educational and research capabilities. Of course, as previously mentioned, the technological and educational progress made through the researching and development of space technology has helped China develop a more sophisticated, advanced, and knowledgeable academia.[xlvii]

Key among the domestic impacts of China’s space program, however, is its application as a source of national pride and unity. As discussed earlier, the Chinese government has routinely used the space program to highlight China’s achievements, accomplishments, and progress. An active space program, in the eyes of the Chinese population, is a sign of national and international prestige; accordingly, its continued success resonates with the Chinese people as an indicator of China overcoming its historical period of “national humiliation.” The development of China’s military capabilities in outer space reflects the government’s emphasis on “comprehensive national strength,” and indicates to the Chinese people China’s emerging military might. Furthermore, the development themes recurring in the Chinese leadership’s narratives about the space program suggest that China is on a path of growth, progress, and technological innovation, all of which appeal to the national pride of China’s citizenry. Indeed, the ability for China’s space program to excite and unite China’s population is demonstrated in its continued use by the Chinese media and government for propaganda purposes. Space missions are routinely addressed by the Chinese media and government as advancing and enhancing China’s power and prestige, rousing national ethos, and inspiring people of all of China’s ethnic groups for “the socialist cause with Chinese characteristics.”[xlviii] These messages clearly resonate with the Chinese people, who, as earlier stated, demonstrate high interest in China’s space missions and who regularly turn out in massive numbers for the parades and celebrations held for China’s recently returned astronauts.[xlix]

These beneficial domestic impacts are crucial for China’s leadership, for they help support and legitimize continued CCP rule.[l] The Chinese Communist Party has premised its continued rule on its ability to produce economic results, to advance China’s development as a technological and economic power, to overcome China’s past humiliations, and to enhance China’s standing in the international community. As the Chinese space program supports all of these goals in various ways, the Chinese government has come to see the space program as a reinforcing agent in China’s domestic politics. It is no wonder, then, that the Chinese leadership is so quick to enthusiastically support the continued development of the program and reinforce the linkages between the program’s benefits and its political platform.

Foreign Significance

The international impact of China’s space program is perhaps most clearly evident in its military application. The development of China’s fleet of dual-use satellites has benefitted China in its quest to establish security, assert regional hegemony, and reach military parity with the United States. As earlier mentioned, China’s observation, communications, and navigation satellites all provide support to the PLA’s ground, air, and naval operations, thereby enhancing their capacity to assert regional hegemony through hard power projection. Furthermore, the dual-use of the programs launch vehicles as ballistic and intercontinental missiles allows the Chinese military global striking range with its tactical and nuclear weapons. The development of offensive and defensive space technologies provides China the capability to track, counter, and destroy enemy nations’ space assets, a crucial element of modern, high-tech warfare. Indeed, through these counterspace technologies, China has developed an effective deterrent against American power projection in the Asia-Pacific, which relies heavily upon American space assets for coordination and execution.

The expansion of China’s civilian space program serves to enhance China’s standing on the international stage. Through the accomplishment of a number of space “firsts,” the Chinese leadership has been able to portray China as a scientific and technological leader in the Asia-Pacific. The landing of Chang’e 3 on the moon marked the first time an Asian power conducted a lunar lander, and the manned flights of Shenzhou have been the only human missions conducted by an Asian space program. The Yunghuo 1 mission of 2011 was to be the first Asian mission to Mars, although its failure and the subsequent success of India’s 2014 Mars Orbiter Mission meant that China could not achieve such a “first.” The importance placed on these symbolic achievements by national governments is demonstrated by the ramping up of space activities by a number of Asian space programs. As previously mentioned, India has conducted a mission to Mars, and has plans for subsequent missions to Mars and the Moon. It too is in the process of developing a manned space program.[li] In the wake of Chang’e 3’s landing on the moon, the Japanese space agency announced its own plans for a campaign of lunar landings and exploration.[lii] However, at this stage, these powers are playing “catch up” to China’s accomplishments. Nonetheless, the competition between regional powers in the arena of space demonstrates the “soft power” impact of an active space program, and Chinese success in this area has thereby enabled the Chinese leadership to assert its supremacy over its neighbors. Indeed, as evidenced by the “space race” of the 1950s and 1960s, maintain an active and expanding manned space program is perceived by the international community as the hallmark of a great power. The Chinese leadership, recognizing this, has therefore committed heavily to the development of its manned programs.

China’s history of cooperation with international partners in outer space is also of great significance. China has had longstanding ties with the Russian, Brazilian, and European space agencies which involve agreements for cooperation on the development of space missions, transfers of technology and information, joint training, and participation in major space programs.[liii] Through these cooperative agreements and longstanding ties, China is capable of building partnerships and relationships which have the potential to extend beyond the realm of space. History has demonstrated that cooperation in space activities develop norms of cooperation and mutual understandings between partners which serve to benefit a cooperative, diplomatic resolution to broader political concerns and disagreements. Furthermore, through the binding of its space program with other programs and the resulting establishment of joint responsibilities, China has effectively limited the ability for its foreign partners to disavow or terminate cooperation with China; such is a similar affect to the mutual Russian-American responsibility for the ISS continuing cooperatively despite geopolitical tensions between the two states. Additionally, establishing space partnerships enables China to develop a geopolitical counter to American hegemony. Many see the Chinese-Russian space partnership as an element in a broader partnership designed to counter American influence, while the growing partnership between the European Space Agency and the Chinese space program has been seen by some as China’s strategy of limiting the clout and influence the United States has in convincing its allies to support the containment of China’s and the growth of its capabilities.[liv] The Chinese commercial launch market, by catering to the needs of countries without indigenous launching capabilities, helps strengthen China’s international economic ties. As analysts of the Asia-Pacific are quick to point out, China’s economic ties with numerous states prevent the formation of a bloc designed to contain China’s continued rise. As many countries don’t wish to jeopardize their significant economic relationships with China, they will be less likely to abandon those ties in order to balance against China, allowing China’s rise to continue without concentrated opposition. The establishment of economic ties in the realm of space therefore furthers China’s goal for an unopposed rise to hegemony. Finally, China’s emphasis on cooperation in space reflects the Chinese leadership’s rhetorical position of international cooperation and peaceful coexistence, and thereby further emphasizes the international standing which China’s leaders hope for China to be seen.[lv]

Finally, and of much significance for the impact of China’s space program internationally, the Chinese program is rapidly developing at a time when the United States and Russian programs, long seen as the major, established space programs, are facing stagnation. The Chinese space station is expected to be placed into orbit around the same time the ISS, Russia’s and America’s space station, is to be decommissioned. Although NASA has ambitious plans for the manned exploration of Mars, such plans are still decades away from being realized, and as of 2015 the United States has no national spacecraft capable of manned missions in use. The Russian space program, meanwhile, has been mired with technical problems and malfunctions and is significantly strapped for cash.[lvi] As such, some see China’s redoubled efforts in outer space as an attempt to supplant the United States and Russia as the world’s eminent space power while the American and Russian programs remain stagnant. Doing so would be a major “soft power” and propaganda feat for China, for it would demonstrate in the eyes of its citizens and the international community that China has surpassed the world’s superpower in an important metric of great power status.

Conclusion – An Effective Tool

The political, military, economic, and cultural benefits brought about through China’s space program show considerable parallels to the Apollo-era American rationale for pursuing space flight; the Chinese leadership is not pursuing space development not just as an end in itself, but as part of its larger strategy of asserting Chinese power and influence on the world stage.[lvii] There exists a view among the Chinese space community and leadership that “to be a major power, a country must have a space station.”[lviii] Indeed, in the opinion of numerous scholars, China has sought to emulate existing great powers by achieving the “metrics” that identify great power status in the contemporary international system. Along with the hosting of the Beijing Olympics and the construction of major weapons systems like the Liaoning class aircraft carrier, the development of China’s space program places China in an “elite club” of powers which stand out in the international community. Indeed, Chinese commentary and reflections on the space program regularly emphasize how Chinese space accomplishments place China among a small club of other technologically advanced, globally eminent powers.[lix]

Through its rhetorical messages, China’s leadership has sought to portray China to its citizens and to the international community as a rising major power. The development of China’s economy, a focus on education, science, and technology, the advancement of China’s military capabilities and reach, and the level of China’s international prestige are all “soft power” factors which the Chinese government has used to demonstrate China’s rising status. Meanwhile, through the deployment of “hard power” offensive and defensive capabilities, the Chinese leadership has sought to demonstrate their ability to counter America’s containment efforts. Asserting power in order to deter or counter the American presence in the Asia-Pacific is a key step in China’s quest for regional hegemony, and is ultimately necessary for China to rise as a superpower with global reach and influence. The Chinese space program, through its dual civil and military use, supports the achievement of all of these aims.

Recognizing this, the Chinese leadership has lent enthusiastic support to the Chinese space program, seeing to it that its ambitious and growing capabilities continue to develop. More importantly, they have used the space program as a propaganda tool to reflect their message of China’s growth and development, a message intimately connected to China’s view of itself as a major power in the global arena. Through its practical military and security applications, the economic, technological, and cultural benefits it brings domestically, and its effective application in Chinese rhetoric and propaganda for building a sense of national pride and unity, China’s space program is today an effective tool used by the Chinese leadership for establishing China, in the eyes of both its citizens and the international community, as one of the world’s major power.

Works Cited

[i] Harvey, Brian. China’s Space Program: From Conception to Manned Spaceflight. (2004). Chichester: Praxis.

[ii] (2003, October). China and the Second Space Age. Retrieved from http://www.futron.com/upload/wysiwyg/Resources/Whitepapers/China_n_%20Second_Space_Age_1003.pdf

[iii] Sadeh, Eligar (ed.). Space Strategy in the 21st Century. (2014). London: Routledge.

[iv] Kulacki, Gregory and Lewis, Jeffery G. (2009). A Place for One’s Mat: China’s Space Program, 1956-2003. Retrieved from http://carnegie.org/fileadmin/Media/Publications/PDF/spaceChina.pdf

[v] Sadeh, Eligar (ed.). Space Strategy in the 21st Century.

[vi] Harvey, Brian. China’s Space Program: From Conception to Manned Spaceflight.

[vii] Sadeh, Eligar (ed.) Space Strategy in the 21st Century.

[viii] China and the Second Space Age.

[ix] Kulacki, Gregory and Lewis, Jeffery G. A Place for One’s Mat: China’s Space Program, 1956-2003.

[x]China and the Second Space Age.

[xi] Sheenan, Michael. (2013). ‘Did you see that, grandpa Mao?’ The prestige and propaganda rationales of the Chinese space program. Space Policy, 29, 107-112.

[xii]Kulacki, Gregory and Lewis, Jeffery G. A Place for One’s Mat: China’s Space Program, 1956-2003.

[xiii] China and the Second Space Age.

[xiv] Cheng, Dean and Stokes, Mark A. (eds.). (2012, April). China’s Evolving Space Capabilities: Implications for U.S. Interests. Retrieved from http://project2049.net/documents/uscc_china-space-program-report_april-2012.pdf

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] Sheenan, Michael. ‘Did you see that, grandpa Mao?’ The prestige and propaganda rationales of the Chinese space program.

[xvii] Cheng, Dean and Stokes, Mark A. (eds.). China’s Evolving Space Capabilities: Implications for U.S. Interests.

[xviii] Harvey, Brian. China in Space: The Great Leap Forward. (2013). Chichester: Praxis.

[xix] David, Leonard. (2013). China Lands on the Moon: Historic Robotic Lunar Landing Includes 1st Chinese Rover. Retrieved from http://www.space.com/23968-china-moon-rover-historic-lunar-landing.html

[xx] Chang, Deng. (Spring, 2012). China’s Military Role in Space. Space Studies Quarterly, 55-78.

[xxi] Sheenan, Michael. ‘Did you see that, grandpa Mao?’ The prestige and propaganda rationales of the Chinese space program.

[xxii] Ibid.

[xxiii] Cheng, Dean and Stokes, Mark A. (eds.). China’s Evolving Space Capabilities: Implications for U.S. Interests.

[xxiv] Ibid.

[xxv] Sheenan, Michael. ‘Did you see that, grandpa Mao?’ The prestige and propaganda rationales of the Chinese space program.

[xxvi] Sibing, He. (2003). What’s next for China in space after Shenzhou? Space Policy 19, 183-189.

[xxvii] Chang, Deng. China’s Military Role in Space. Space Studies Quarterly, 55-78.

[xxviii] Harvey, Brian. China in Space: The Great Leap Forward. (2013). Chichester: Praxis.

[xxix] Chang, Deng. China’s Military Role in Space. Space Studies Quarterly, 55-78.

[xxx] Harvey, Brian. China in Space: The Great Leap Forward. (2013). Chichester: Praxis.

[xxxi] Chang, Deng. China’s Military Role in Space. Space Studies Quarterly, 55-78.

[xxxii] Cheng, Dean and Stokes, Mark A. (eds.). China’s Evolving Space Capabilities: Implications for U.S. Interests.

[xxxiii] Chang, Deng. China’s Military Role in Space. Space Studies Quarterly, 55-78

[xxxiv] Cheng, Dean and Stokes, Mark A. (eds.). China’s Evolving Space Capabilities: Implications for U.S. Interests.

[xxxv] China and the Second Space Age.

[xxxvi] Cheng, Dean and Stokes, Mark A. (eds.). China’s Evolving Space Capabilities: Implications for U.S. Interests.

[xxxvii] Solomone, Stacey. (2006). China’s Space Program: the great leap upward. Journal of Contemporay China, 15(47), 311-327.

[xxxviii] Sheenan, Michael. ‘Did you see that, grandpa Mao?’ The prestige and propaganda rationales of the Chinese space program.

[xxxix] Solomone, Stacey. China’s Space Program: the great leap upward.

[xl] Sheenan, Michael. ‘Did you see that, grandpa Mao?’ The prestige and propaganda rationales of the Chinese space program.

[xli] Ibid.

[xlii] Ibid.

[xliii] Ibid.

[xliv] Cheng, Dean and Stokes, Mark A. (eds.). China’s Evolving Space Capabilities: Implications for U.S. Interests.

[xlv] Solomone, Stacey. China’s Space Program: the great leap upward.

[xlvi] Ibid.

[xlvii] Sheenan, Michael. ‘Did you see that, grandpa Mao?’ The prestige and propaganda rationales of the Chinese space program.

[xlviii] Ibid.

[xlix] Ibid.

[l] Sadeh, Eligar (ed.) Space Strategy in the 21st Century.

[li] Kremer, Ken. (2014, September). India’s First Mars Mission MOM Meets Mars on Sept. 23/24. Retrieved from http://www.universetoday.com/114746/indias-first-mars-mission-mom-meets-mars-on-sept-2324-watch-arrival-live/

[lii] (2014, April). Japan planning moon mission: space agency. Retrieved from http://phys.org/news/2015-04-japan-moon-mission-space-agency.html

[liii] Smith, Marcia S. (2003, October). China’s Space Program: An Overview. Congressional Research Service. Retrieved from http://www.defense.gov/pubs/20030730chinaex.pdf

[liv] Erickson, Andrew A, and Johnson-Freese, Joan. (2006). The emerging China-EU space partnership: A geotechnical balancer. Space Policy (22), 12-22.

[lv] Sheenan, Michael. ‘Did you see that, grandpa Mao?’ The prestige and propaganda rationales of the Chinese space program.

[lvi] Harvey, Brian. China in Space: The Great Leap Forward. (2013). Chichester: Praxis.

[lvii] Johnson-Freese, Joan. (2002, Fall). China’s Manned Space Program, What is that all about? Harvard Asia Pacific Review. Retrieved from http://web.mit.edu/lipoff/www/hapr/fall02_science/space.pdf

[lviii] Pollpeter, Kevin. (2011, October). Tiangong-1 launch make’s China’s space station plans a reality. China Brief. 11(19).

[lix] Sheenan, Michael. ‘Did you see that, grandpa Mao?’ The prestige and propaganda rationales of the Chinese space program.

“Moscow and Chinese Communists,” A Review

The founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 represented the victory of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) over the Kuomintang in the struggle for power in and control over China and culminated decades of civil war and revolutionary intrigue. Western scholarship on the Chinese Revolution has paid particular focus to the leading actors and key events within the Chinese Communist Party during the crucial years between its founding in 1921 and its ultimate ascendency in 1949. So, too, does the contemporary Chinese revolutionary narrative pay reverence to the mythos of Mao, the “Long March,” and the triumph of the Chinese communists against seemingly impossible odds. Yet lost in this narrative is the reality that no revolution exists in a vacuum; indeed,  external actors, events, and circumstances have the potential to fundamentally shape the characteristics of a revolutionary moment along with the character, organization, strategy, and tactics of a revolutionary movement. Such is particularly the case for revolutions framed around Marxist ideology, which is global and transnational in both theory and practice.

In Moscow and Chinese Communists, Robert North explores the external actors and events which came to dramatically shape the origins and character of China’s Communist Party and revolution by detailing the intricate linkages between the Soviet Union and China’s communists. The book progresses through a tracing of the history of Soviet influence on China’s communist party, beginning with the origins of Communist thought in China, the formation of the CCP, and the Kuomintang-Communist alliance, through the Kuomintang-Communist split, Mao’s ascendancy to power, the experiment of the Kiangsi Soviet, and the Sino-Japanese war. Throughout this progression, North breaks from the conventional analysis of the Chinese Revolution as a product of Maoist theory, strategy, and practice, proposing instead that the Soviet Union’s strategy for international communist revolution, along with the individual characters of Soviet leaders, the dynamics of Soviet politics, and the prejudices and perceptions of the advisors sent by the Soviet Union to advise the CCP, shaped the ultimate direction the Chinese revolution would take.

North particularly emphasizes the fluidity and pragmatism of Leninist and Bolshevik revolutionary strategy, directed by the Soviet Union through the Comintern, in the context of the Chinese Revolution, along with the impact they had. The main recurring point in this analysis explains Soviet support for the Kuomintang, which set in motion the circumstance which would eventually lead to an independent, and ultimately victorious, Chinese Communist Party, as a method to influence key political actors in China and undermine anti-revolutionary currents; supporting the Kuomintang was, as North puts it, a supposed “Trojan horse for gaining control of China” for Bolshevik leaders (pg. 66). Crucial to this is North’s other key point, that political events and actors outside of China ultimately played the key role in determining the strategy and direction the CCP would take. He details how the struggle between Trotsky and Stalin for leadership in the Soviet Union manifested itself in China’s revolution, with Stalin’s push for CCP-Kuomintang cooperation, developed to oppose Trotsky’s calls for an autonomous communist movement in China, emerging triumphant with Stalin’s consolidation of power. This point plays into North’s broader conclusion, that the strategies imposed by the Soviet Union on China’s communists were borne not only, and perhaps not even so much, out of a desire to see Communism in China, but as “weapons in personal drives for power” (pg. 30). The challenge of democratic centralism and the dictatorial Leninist system for global Marxist revolution, then, is perhaps most clearly demonstrated through North’s claims that Stalin’s carefully laid plains, and the manifesting Bolshevik influence on the CCP, “had precipitated nothing but near-disaster for the Chinese Communists” through successive failures, setbacks, and deceits (pg. 97).

The analysis North provides of the Chinese Communist Party, and the influence had on it by the Soviet Union, puts into global perspective the narrative told about the Chinese Revolution, one which often overlooks or undervalues such key linkages. His detailing of the personalities, prejudices, and perceptions of the numerous actors who took part in the connections between the Soviet Union and the CCP reveals political action and intrigue far broader and more complex than what is usually given by simply analyzing Mao and his key lieutenants. Indeed, for this, North’s book sheds much needed light and insight into the formation and character of the Chinese Communist Party, insight which is lost when credence isn’t paid to the multitude of individuals who helped shape its direction.

Regarding Mao as the sole face, character, and strategist of China’s Communists removes from consideration the significant roles played by others, especially Soviets, in defining Chinese communist strategy and organization. Similarly, regarding China’s Communist Revolution as an isolated, insular event neglects the global political and broader communist context in which it existed. Doing such provides an incomplete, and even incorrect, understanding of not only China’s revolution, but the contemporary characteristics of China’s Communist Party. North’s work represents an admirable attempt at combating such simplistic explanations.

Though North focuses his analysis on the Soviet Union’s influence on China’s communists, emergent from his work is an equally valid and intuitive critique of the strategies of Bolshevism and the role played by the Comintern in inciting global communist revolution. By demonstrating the role played by the Soviet Union in structuring, and sometimes dictating, the organization and revolutionary strategies of the CCP, he reveals how the Comintern was, far from being only a tool used to further the revolutionary current, a tool used to secure Soviet leadership and hegemony in the communist world. His critique of the pitfalls in the role played by the Soviet Union in the communist world, such as Stalin’s utilization of the Comintern and shaping of Bolshevik strategy for his furthering of personal power and the inefficiencies and challenges facing a centralized yet transnational communist organization, readily support the historical reality of the Comintern’s failure to develop a unified, cohesive communist bloc. His analysis can thus be used to effectively and insightfully analyze communist movements and their relations to the Soviet Union in countries other than China.

However, despite the attention North dedicates to the often overlooked actors crucial to China’s Communist Revolution and the insights gained from such, North neglects to spend focus on what are conventionally considered the key actors. He dedicates only a brief chapter to Mao’s life, rise, and influence on Chinese Communism. Focusing his attention on the Soviet influence on the characteristics of Chinese communism, he further fails to consider deeply the origins of, and significance of, Maoist thought and theory. By doing so, North commits an error equally dangerous to overlooking less significant actors in the CCP; without providing ample consideration of Mao or Maoism, North is unable to provide a rounded, complete analysis and understanding of the Chinese Communist Revolution and all the sources of influence which brought about its ultimate success. Attention could have been directed toward the influence of Bolshevism and Bolshevik theory on the formation of Maoist thought, or the interplay between the development of Maoism and the application of Leninist strategy in the context of the CCP’s strategy; North, however, does not attempt such an analysis, narrowing his focus instead largely on the application of Soviet practices in the CCP’s strategy.

Another issue, though one not necessarily emergent as a result of North’s work, is when his book was published; in 1963, the year of publishing, the Sino-Soviet split was only just beginning, and little access to documents detailing the intricacies of Soviet-CCP cooperation was available. Accordingly, North, as an American living in the height of the Cold War, laces his analysis with a detectable concern about the prospects of a Sino-Soviet bloc; indeed, he frames his analysis of international communist cooperation as enabling Western audiences to “perhaps be less inclined to behave precisely as the Bolshevik strategists and tacticians expect – and, for Communist purposes – want them to behave” (pg. 8). This prejudice undermines his analysis of the Chinese Communist Party, which should otherwise be an objective analysis of a case study in political developments and international cooperation, by framing it as a global conspiracy rather than as a product of historical circumstances. As such, the reader is left wondering whether the characteristics and perceptions ascribed by North to the Soviet Union’s various advisers and China’s developing communist thinkers are indeed borne from reality, or if they have been construed to convey to the reader a fear of a growing and perhaps impending global communist victory. Meanwhile, without access to a breadth of documentation on the topic of his analysis, North falls short of providing a full and complete, and likely even substantial, understanding of the true depth of the cooperation between the Soviet Union and China’s communists. Further work is left to be done by other researchers and authors to expand and refine upon the analytical framework North has provided.

Robert North’s Moscow and Chinese Communists provides a reader with a fuller picture of the development of China’s Communist Party and the eventual Communist Revolution, one that would otherwise be impossible if focus was only paid to Mao and the elements of communist theory indigenous in China. Despite the issues raised by this review, he admirably sets forward to depict China’s Revolution as an event created by, and often directly influenced by, outside forces and outside actors. Developing a true understanding of the Chinese Revolution, or any revolution influenced by Marxist ideology, necessitates knowledge of the various international forces and actors in play and the influence they had. The reader will finish this book feeling more confident in that knowledge, and therefore have a more nuanced and rounded understanding of how and why the Chinese Communist Party took and used the character, organization, and strategies that came to define it.

Moscow and Chinese Communists. Robert C. North. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1963. 310 pp.

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