This article by Natasha Lock won the “Young China Watchers & Lau China Institute Writing Competition 2023” on the topic of “China: Knowledge Superpower”.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the views of Young China Watchers or the Lau China Institute.
Contemporary debates on China tend to focus on what the Party’s intentions are and how these will implicate the world. But what has China’s space journey looked like? How can space innovation serve the CCP’s domestic and foreign policy? What are some of the challenges for space exploration in the 21st century?
China is celebrated as a prominent global player in space research and development, but the country’s space policy has ventured a turbulent mission. The successful launch of China’s first satellite, named “东方红” (East Is Red), in 1970 was paradoxical as it occurred when Mao was conducting a nationwide purge of the very intellectuals who were essential for the development of a space program. Forward to 1978 and grappling with how to balance ideological Communism with new state-found Capitalism, Deng Xiaoping looked towards the strategic currency of space exploration. Throughout the 1980s, China launched a series of satellites for communication, weather monitoring, and scientific research, bolstering its capabilities in space technology.
It was under Jiang Zemin’s rule that China’s space development journey gained significant impetus. China achieved crucial milestones, including the successful launch of its first manned spacecraft, Shenzhou 5, in 2003, making China the third country to send a human into space. Throughout Hu Jintao’s tenure, China continued its space exploration efforts, conducting spacewalks, lunar missions, and developing the Beidou satellite navigation system.
The rise of Xi Jinping in 2013 accelerated the space programme. Xi introduced a more assertive, hawkish, and confident administration that actively sought to exercise influence beyond China’s national boundaries and, in turn, the earth. Over the past decade, China has been actively developing its space station, 天宫空间站, and has embarked on ambitious missions to Mars and other planetary bodies, solidifying its position as a major player in the global space race. On January 3 2019, China’s lunar rover Change’4 achieved humanity’s first ever soft landing on the far side of the moon.
There are three assumptions about why national space building has become a priority of the Chinese state.
(1) Geopolitical stature: History has been the best indicator of how achieving milestones in space can bolster a nation’s international reputation and influence. Being at the forefront of space exploration will enhance China’s global status as a global leader in science, technology, and innovation.
(2) Political legitimacy: Achievements in space exploration harness a collective sense of national identity and confidence in one’s government to tackle complex challenges. For a Party that proves its legitimacy not through votes but action, it has to render examples of its success to calcify its rightful place as leading the nation. Similarly, a focus on space missions can serve as a convenient deflection card from pressing internal issues or disputes.
(3) Technological advancement: Xi’s vision for China’s global ascendancy finds resonance with the country’s space exploration ambitions. This has been couched in the language of national rejuvenation. Xi’s “space dream” serves as an apogee of self-reliant technological innovation focused on economic and military might.
All three of these variables specifically tap into the CCP’s nationalism efforts: to demonstrate it will compete with the US and other adversaries in spheres of significant influence; to amalgamate domestic support at home by successful space campaigns; and fast-track China’s technological advancement which will transcend into other scientific fields.
“Xi’s vision for China’s global ascendancy finds resonance with the country’s space exploration ambitions. This has been couched in the language of national rejuvenation. Xi’s “space dream” serves as an apogee of self-reliant technological innovation focused on economic and military might.”
External and Internal Challenges
Three major issues may challenge China’s future space ambitions. International competition, escalating geopolitical factors and space policy disagreements may hinder progress and future missions. Similarly, accusations of hegemony may impact China’s space diplomacy efforts alongside tarnishing Beijing’s image on the global stage. With the BRI, increasingly aggressive stances on Hong Kong and Taiwan, and expanding defence capabilities, China could be accused of using the space sphere as yet another area to dominantly exert its control and influence. Finally, an enduring critique of space exploration is the argument that focus, resources and money should be injected into alleviating problems of our contemporary world rather than focusing on space endeavours. The allocation of substantial resources (USD$12 billion in 2022 alone) to Chinese space programs, especially in the context of a Xi who pledges to push for “common prosperity”, can raise questions about priorities and the potential opportunity cost of such investments.
Feats in space continue to shape paradigms on earth. China’s space journey has evolved from a country closed off to space exploration by the gates of the Cultural Revolution, to a leading nation in the multipolar vector of space R&D. A Chinese white paper from 2021 detailing space exploration assures “peace and progress for all humanity”; but in reality China’s space programme seems to be buoyed in self-gains and consequently distrusted by other states. Indeed, International Relations continues to show us that space ambitions afar are deeply entwined within the cocoon of political ambitions.
“Feats in space continue to shape paradigms on earth. China’s space journey has evolved from a country closed off to space exploration by the gates of the Cultural Revolution, to a leading nation in the multipolar vector of space R&D.”