Wednesday, 27 June 2012


Twenty years after the famous 'Earth Summit', delegates from across the world travelled to Rio de Janeiro recently for the 'Rio+20' follow-up conference. Much of it seems to have been spent trying to explain the inadequate implementation of earlier commitments on global warming and environnmental protection in the intervening period. It was larger but also less ambitious than previous summits, establishing a process to agree on the definition of contested terms.

I am not going to discuss the details of the summit in this post. Instead I want to explore the history of China's participation in international environmental summits. It is often heard that China's involvement in these negotiations promotes democracy within China because it makes the central government dependent on (relatively) independent environmental NGOs and civil society groups exposing local officials who violate China's robust body of environmental protection laws.

That is true. However, the Communist Party has also used certain discourses of environmental summitry to expand the reach of the state into the lives of its people. In particular, these summits have often strengthened the technocrats in the CPC vis-a-vis the liberals, by creating the impression that national governments have less agency than they had in the past and thus making the ability to choose between governments seem less relevant to the problems society faces.

But before that, we need to go back to a time before climate change became a permanent item on the international agenda.


In the 1950s, the slogan Ren Ding Sheng Tian was proclaimed throughout China - it means "man must conquer nature" and it embodied Mao's confrontational stance towards the natural world.

Nature, argued Mao, was there to be tamed and harnessed for human purposes. Traditional Chinese ideas about living in harmony with nature, such as in Daoism, were outdated relics. Marxism-Leninism-Mao-Zedong-Thought revealed that the obstacles to man's mastery of his environment were not inherent in nature but were political; once the control of technology was placed in the hands of the people (via the Party), they would be free to use it to liberate themselves and achieve their fullest human potential.

One can see this as an expression of the ideas Marx espoused in his Grundrisse:

"Nature does not construct machines, locomotives, railways, electric telegraphs, self-acting mules, etc. These are products of human industry; natural material transformed into organs of the human will to dominate nature or to realise itself therein. They are organs of the human brain, created by human hands; the power of knowledge made into an object."

It has become fashionable to denigrate not only the often brutal means the CPC used to achieve these ends, but the ends themselves, and the way they conceived of the basic relationship between man and his environment as reflected in their great optimism about technological solutions. A well-respected recent examples of this is Judith Shapiro's book, Mao's War Against Nature: Politics and the Environment in Revolutionary China.

Her central argument is that the violent, repressive tactics the CPC used to try to tame nature are inseparable from the end goal itself:

"Few cases of environmental degradation so clearly reveal the human and environmental costs incurred when human beings, particularly those who determine policy, view themselves as living in an oppositional relationship to nature - as well as to each other - and behave accordingly. The relationship between humans and nature under Mao is so transparent and extreme that it clearly indicates a link between abuse of people and abuse of the natural environment."

Shapiro sees this connection as essential because she sees the efforts of man to achieve rational control over nature as doomed from the start and thus a contributing factor in man's exploitation of his fellow man - and she sees it is a doomed mission because she believes that biology explains all (or almost all) human behaviour, so that man has no vantage point "outside" of nature from which he can bend it to his will.

The Mao era certainly seems like a perfect case-study for her thesis, with its legacy of land degradation, air and water pollution and ecological destruction. But the connections between Mao's ambitions, his policies, and the environmental damage is not so simple. Shapiro is right to link the exploitation of nature to the exploitation of human beings, but I think the case of Mao's rule shows that she has the direction of causation the wrong way round.

A basic idea about man's relationship to nature does not automatically entail particular policies (unless, perhaps, you are a Behaviourist); rather, there are a range of different social, economic and cultural systems that can be theoretically derived from the basic Maoist concept. The factor that determined Mao's choice of policies was not so much anthropocentric ideology as it was a fear of imminent war, and his perceived need to dramatically accelerate China's industrialisation. It was this imperative, processed through a highly authoritarian state machine, that drove the worst environmental excesses of the Mao era: not an excess of rationality, but rational calculation "bound" by the irrational pressures of the Cold War.

Seeing the unsustainable policies adopted in pursuit of crash-course industrialisation as "irrational" misses the point that key decision-makers in the CPC could not foresee a future for China without it - if China could defend itself until the threat had passed, then it would have the space it needed to develop rationally. In the meantime, the threat of war could be used to mobilise efforts for industrialisation on an epic scale.

The perceived need for speed is crucial to understanding the PRC's unique - and uniquely disastrous - strategy for catching-up to the West. Instead of first developing light industry and modernising antiquated Chinese agricultural practices, the government aimed to get as much food as possible out of the land as quickly as they could by labour-intensive methods, and to use this to feed an enlarged urban workforce, who would then supply the countryside with the fruits of heavy industry. The 'Great Leap Forward' was supposed to be a big kick to get a virtuous circle in motion, but - to put it mildly - it failed to generate the required abundance of food.

Below is a CIA documentary about the start of the Great Leap. It features an exhibition of impressive-sounding farming machinery but the Great Leap was meant to be the progenitor, not the child, of modern technology: "This was the only steam shovel I saw in China. But this was only the beginning they said. The Leap Forward was only the first step."

Alongside the Great Leap were other harmful schemes born from similar motives: factories relocated from coastal areas to inland provinces where they polluted downstream rivers; mountains blasted ("turning caverns into thoroughfares") and hillsides terraced causing floods; rivers dammed, raising the water table and turning nearby crops into swamps; Lysenkoist schemes for planting grain in deserts ("squeezing land from rocks").
Another prominent slogan of the period was Ren Duo, Lilang Da ("with many people, strength is great"), which reflected Mao's view that a large and growing population was a net benefit for the PRC. But many academics in China who feared the environmental consquences of promoting large families. Chief among them was an economist named Ma Yinchu.

In 1957 Ma went public with his 'New Population Theory', which argued that the government should adopt policies to control fertility and reduce the high rates of population growth. Politically, his timing could not have been worse, coming as it did at the start of the Great Leap. Over the next three years he was attacked as a "Malthusian" undermining socialism, before being purged from his post as President of Peking University.

It would be another twenty years until Ma's - and Malthus' - arguments were accepted by the Party.


In 1972 the UN Conference on the Human Environment was held in Stockholm. It was the first major meeting of governments from around the world to discuss the environmental damage caused by modern economic growth and the need for international solutions.

China participated even though it was in the late stages of the Cultural Revolution, issuing notably modest statements that acknowledged its own environmental problems. Directly and indirectly, the conference had a major impact on China's future development.

In the same year, a seminal book was published by a group known as the Club of Rome that received a great deal of attention and publicity because it seemed to capture the spirit of the conference. It was called The Limits to Growth, and it captured headlines by claiming that, on present trends, the world was headed for general and catastrophic environmental collapse. It did this by running twelve different statistical models of industrial society on computers.

The graph below shows the "standard" projection:

As the video below illustrates, the urgency this vision of pending collapse gave to the environmental movement chimed with the themes of the conference, with its emphasis on the need to go beyond national sovereignty and adopt a global system-level perspective.

A year later, in pursuit of better international relations, Premier Zhou oversaw the first National Conference on the Environment in Beijing. As in the international arena, the Beijing conference was followed by a flurry of small leadership groups, follow-up meetings and policy frameworks over the next few years. In his article on the environmental legacies of Mao and Deng, Richard Sanders writes that at this time:

"There was a noticeable change of attitude towards the environment. Perhaps influenced by the 'Limits to Growth' debate in the West, ecology became a political topic and the concept of 'environmental hygiene' was replaced with that of 'environmental protection.'"

'Peking Man'
According to Susan Greenhalgh, the key to understanding policymaking in the PRC in the late 1970s is that "hard" science had come to be valued above all other disciplines as a criterion for decisionmaking and, because of the damage the Cultural Revolution had inflicted on the Universities, this was only to be found in the military and aeronautic research establishments. Non-military branches of science had been heavily politicised under Mao - for instance, archeologists were required to affirm that the remains of 'Peking Man' confirmed Engels' theories of primitive communism.

One of the luminaries of aeronautical research who had benefited from state protection and largesse was a scientist named Song Jian. Song was an expert in 'control theory' - controlling the behaviour of dynamic systems, which in his case meant controlling how missiles moved in the sky.

Song Jian
 In the early 1970s China steered its population policy towards 'family planning' measures, increased availability of contraception, and so on - "later, longer, fewer." Song was one of the scientists the government drafted to advise on further measures necessary to reduce population growth. Searching for a framework, he read Limits to Growth, and was won over by its message that governments had to act urgently to counteract man's "natural" tendency to destroy the planet.

The book had been co-written by engineers and adopted a systems-analysis approach to the problems of sustainability and demography, which saw the world as an interconnected system in need of management and control. It is full of block diagrams of "vital" social variables, like this:

To Song, this was exactly what China needed to solve its socioeconomic problems: more plain, hard scientific facts and less sociology and economics, which always led to arguments and political instability. He had studied cybernetics in the Soviet Union, which was closely related to system dynamics; the great Russian cybernetician A. N. Kolmogorov defined his field as "the study of systems which are capable of receiving, storing and processing information so as to use it for control." Here he is at work:

Song told his colleagues that he was astonished when he first began studying graphs of demographic trends, because they reminded him of the trajectory of a missile. And this was the insight that guided him in designing China's population policy - it was essentially the same as guiding a missile smoothly to its target.

He did this in spite of the many criticisms levelled at Limits to Growth in the West. In a scathing review of World Dynamics, a forerunner to the model elaborated in Limits, the economist William D. Nordhaus described its treatment of empirical relations as "measurement without data." He went on to summarise the book's static and simplified view that human beings are incapable of recognising problems and finding solutions without the state controlling their behaviour:

"Human society is a population of insentient beings, unwilling and unable to check reproductive urges; unable to invent computers or birth control devices or synthetic materials; without a price system to help ration scarce goods or to motivate the discovery of new ones."

In 1975 Song travelled with a delegation of scientists and mathematicians to Twente University. On arrival there was an administrative error and he was left with a young mathematics professor called Geert Jan Olsder to keep him company. They went to a bar and chatted over beers, and at last Olsder revealed that he had published a paper earlier in the year entitled 'Population Planning: A Distributed Time-Optimal Control Problem.' To Song's delight, the paper tried to mathematically derive a solution to the same problem he had been studying, even using the same metaphor: "Given a certain initial age profile the population must be "steered" as quickly as possible to another, prescribed, final age profile by means of a suitable chosen birth rate."

As Susan Greenhalgh has documented in a fascinating narrative, Song was able to persuade the Party leadership that drastic action had to be taken immediately in the form of state-imposed one-child policy because he was able to ride the tide of "scientism" prevalent in the PRC at that time and he used his credentials to outmanouevre strong opposition from the "humanistic" disciplines:

"Song and his colleagues laid out their ideal vision of a birth-planning technocracy in which state technicians were in charge of designing and running a multi-level system of social engineering aimed at managing the growth of the entire population from the top, with little input from the objects of control at the bottom."

 In early 1980 he reframed it as not just an environmental issue, but an "extremely urgent strategic duty":

"By arresting the fierce growth of human numbers, China could accelerate its own modernisation and help alleviate a global crisis. Through population control, China would join the world's powers as an economic powerhouse and a socially responsible member of the community of nations."

The irony is unmistakeable: a coercive and intrusive policy for which the PRC has been much criticised was adopted in order to win plaudits from abroad.

As with Mao's Cold War-fuelled dash for modernity, China adopted the one-child policy out of a belief that it confronted an imminent threat to its security - this time emanating from environmental degradation and greenhouse gas emissions. But whilst the CPC in the '50s and '60s had seen the temporal constraints of the Cold War as amenable to change through politics - as it had tried to do by "exporting revolution" - by endorsing all of the Malthusian assumptions in Limits to Growth in the '70s and '80s the Party effected a subtle but hugely significant shift in its ideological position.


In 1992 the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) - the largest environmental conference of world leaders since Stockholm - met in Rio de Janeiro. Since 1972 there had been many follow-up conventions, agreements and working groups, such as the 1985 Helsinki Agreement on limiting sulphur dioxide and the 1988 Montreal Protocol on restoring the ozone layer.

A feeling of underachievement still hung over the 'Earth Summit', which led the delegates to try to achieve something bolder. Among the outcomes were the creation of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (which is still the forum for GHG reductions negotiations today), a landmark convention on biodiversity, the 'Rio Declaration' of 27 shared principles and priorities and Agenda 21, a non-binding action plan for implementing "sustainable development." But it lacked quantitative targets and timetables.
PRC representative,
2002 Johannesburg Summit

China's government attended Rio, led by the Premier Li Peng, although at the time there were still no indigenous environmental groups inside China to participate. The negotiations in Rio proved somewhat fraught. Coming after a coalition of developing countries had failed to create a 'New International Economic Order', a big sticking-point at the summit was the precise meaning of the "common but differentiated responsibilities" nations of the 'North' and the 'South' supposedly had for paying to protect the environment (for the same reason, the U.S. Senate refused to ratify the 1997 Kyoto Protocol).

And in each of the follow-up meetings over the last two decades the failure to agree on a division of the costs, and to implement the sharing of "clean" technologies amongst developing and developed countries, has obstructed progress on other fronts. The failure of national governments to implement serious sustainable development initiatives - let alone finding a detailed balance between development, equity and environmental protection they could all agree on - has made negotiations over binding targets for GHG emissions reductions into a proxy war. In 1997 - year of the 'World Summit II' - the General Assembly of the UN declared that: "Much remains to be done to active the means of particular in the areas of finance and technology transfer."

These tensions reached a dramatic high point in the closing session of the 2007 Bali Climate Change Conference, where the organisers were blasted by the Chinese delegation and the U.S. representative appeared to make an astonishing u-turn after criticism from developing countries:

Against this backdrop, China's recent environmental record presents us with some stark contrasts. On the one hand, it is a world leader in producing renewable power sources and low-carbon technologies; on the other hand, it is the world's largest aggregate (but not yet per capita) emitter of greenhouse gases with extreme hotspots of air and water pollution and degraded land.

Here is a video of an informative talk on China's environmental strengths and weaknesses by Jonathan Watts, who was until recently the Guardian's environmental correspondent in China and is the author of When a Billion Chinese Jump: How China Will Save Mankind - or Destroy It. (There are also interesting talks on this subject by Elizabeth Economy and Orville Schell.)

China has set itself ambitious targets to get 15% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020 and prior to the 2009 Copenhagen Summit it committed to reduce the carbon intensity of its economy by 40 to 45% from its 2005 level by 2020. In a recent article, Watts summarised the Chinese government's main environmental achievements:

"There have been several ambitious steps forward in terms of environmental policy: anti-desertification campaigns; tree planting; an environmental transparency law; adoption of carbon targets; eco-services compensation; eco accounting; caps on water; lower economic growth targets; the 12th Five-Year Plan; debate and increased monitoring of PM2.5 and huge investments in eco-cities, "clean car" manufacturing, public transport, energy-saving devices and renewable technology. The far western deserts of China have been filled with wind farms and solar panels."

Below is a graph showing the downwards trend in China's energy intensity or, seen another way, the increase in its energy efficiency:

This would still mean that China's overall GHG emissions will continue rising: they aren't predicted to peak until 2030, by which time they may have doubled - the rate of economic growth is projected to outstrip the rate at which carbon intensity falls. When the U.S. called on China to make a binding commitment to reduce the rate of growth of its emissions, the PRC responds by pointing to its relatively low per capita emissions and the failure of the industrialised nations to come good on existing commitments to fund and share green technology. Many of the voluntary programmes to reduce GHG emissions are due to expire in 2020.

Isn't the fundamental reality here that progress towards solving a serious problem is grindingly slow because governments have reached a stalemate, but are managing to create just enough of an impression through summit diplomacy that they are still moving forwards?

For those of us who believe in anthropogenic climate change, there seems to be one unarguable proposition: China cannot take the same path to prosperity that the West did. In the first Industrial Revolution per capita energy use increased proportionally with the population, but because China is industrialising later, with a larger population, taking the same path would likely cause catastrophic climate change. Similarly, China can't clean up its environment in the same way that Western countries did, by outsourcing its dirty industries, because the world is running out of buck-passing destinations (or, at least, viable and affordable ones).

Indeed, the trend is towards "insourcing" polluting industries to far inland provinces, as illustrated by the map below (carbon monoxide concentrations indicating hotspots of GHG emissions):

But just because China can't follow the Western route to "clean" prosperity does not mean there may not be alternative routes, and some of these alternatives may in fact have been available to the developed countries, albeit perhaps at too great a cost, whether financial or sociopolitical.

Because the other fundamental reality is that China does need to develop. Most of the symptoms of its environmental malaise can be traced back to its dirty "halfway" model, and the Party's attempts to keep the society segmented and divided to avoid the tensions caused by massive inequality from spilling over.

For instance, with water being diverted it would make sense for farmers to be relocated to urban areas rather than staying put and depleting the non-replensishable water table on which everyone depends, but the government is worried that this would lead to ethnic riots and other violence breaking out in its cities. And it would be more environmentally sound to clean and convert coal at its source before piping it to where it is needed, but because of lopsided price liberalisation in China's energy sector, this is resisted as it would effectively mean piping any profits out of the poorer regions where coal mining predominates. China's dispersed rural Township and Village Enterprises (TVEs) contribute a disproportionate share of both its GHG emissions and its pollution.

New clean-coal technologies are costlier than conventional equipment but because of their relative stages of development and associated opportunity costs, China can still operate them more cheaply than the U.S. But the industrialised world is unwilling to collaborate with industrialising countries to develop green technology on the scale required.

China either needs to retreat, or to move forwards in an entirely new way. But I would argue that, in political terms, a sustainable future has to mean one that is secured by people themselves, through political movements that are rooted in people's shared aspirations, and not handed down to them by international bureaucrats. The real problem is that climate change negotiations are being framed in terms of a conflict between the developed and developing world, rather than as a conflict between people around the world and their national governments, which are too alienated from eachother to share technology or to allow their own people the freedom required for indigenous innovation on the necessary scale.

So those who see a link between the alienation of man from his environment, and from his fellows, are correct in a sense. I just think it is wrong to see that alienation as a feature of nature rather than as an aspect of a contingent political arrangement. Malthusianism and technocracy will not solve our problems - we ought not to abandon our confidence in technology and innovation just because those principles have been abused in the past.

Saturday, 23 June 2012


'Sightings': the term used by Prof. Jonathan D. Spence to describe formative encounters of China by Westerners.

Everyone has heard of the phrase "ping-pong diplomacy." And most people know that it originally referred to sporting exchanges between the Chinese and U.S. table-tennis teams that facilitated the re-opening of official relations between the two states after two decades.

But what you may not know (and what I had not realised until I came to research it) is the variety of life-lessons the sportsmen from both countries took from their encounter - and the surprisingly familiar arguments it provoked about the politicisation of sport, which is meant to stand apart from politics, and be pursued for its own sake.

I decided to revisit the initial encounter between the sports teams that preceded the Mao-Nixon meeting, because I think it can help us to make sense of contemporary debates about whether sport and politics should be 'mixed' or kept 'separate.'

As a tool in the construction of modern nation-states sport is inherently political, but it has always had the potential to transcend narrow nationalisms, because it provides an arena in which countries can unambiguously lose one contest yet win another; when we watch international sporting events, we may root for the home team, but we are also conscious of the contingency of national identity, prestige, virtue, and so on. And I think that a brief history of ping-pong in Chinese politics illustrates this rather well.


Soon after the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, Mao Zedong made ping pong the new national sport (guoqiu). He chose ping pong because it seemed like a sport China - a poor, densely-populated nation - would be able to win against other countries, and become a unified nation in the process.

It was also a political choice: it was not a terribly popular sport throughout most of Europe, and the Nationalist government that had fled to Taiwan was not a member of the sport's international governing body, so when the PRC joined in 1953 it did not provoke the same struggles for diplomatic recognition that hung over the International Olympic Committee (IOC) through the 1950s.

The CPC set up a vast network of talent scouts were dispatched to identify potential champions. In doing this, Mao was following in the tradition of his predecessors, who had also tried to use sport for state-building (and who, in their turn, followed the model set by other modern nation-states like the U.S., which promoted sports as a means of improving the fitness of its military recruits).

At the turn of the 19th-Century, China was dubbed the "sick man of Asia" in an article by an famous Chinese intellectual. In response the Qing government (1644-1911), the last imperial dynasty to rule China, imported military exercises, including gymnastics, from Germany and Sweden, as part of a broader "self-strengthening" movement (ziqiang); it was designed to re-connect the government with the masses through greater efficiency and selective modernisation.

Later, in 1919, the Nationalist government issued a decree entitled The Work Plan for the Promotion of Sport. It stressed that sporting success was vital to the vitality of the new Republic:

"Every country focuses on the promotion of the nation's power through in China has largely been neglected. The present situation shows that sport in China is falling far behind other countries...the government should spare no effort to promote sport...otherwise we cannot survive in international competition."

Governments have often popularised certain sports in the hope of building a shared national identity over and above deep social divisions, related to class, race or religion. Thus the Communists made ping pong the national sport to soften some (but not all) of the class distinctions, and to put identification with the nation before traditional bonds of kinship. It had come to China from Europe in 1901 and was starting to become popular in urban areas in the 1930s.

China joined the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) in the last years of Europe's dominance of the sport. In 1956-7, China's team ranked highly, and came third in the women's singles. Then, in 1959, the table tennis player Rong Guotan made history as the first Chinese sportsman to win a world championship. Rong is the central figure in the photograph below.

It was an occasion for jubilation in China. In 1917 Mao wrote one his first articles on the importance of sport for nation-building. Four decades later he demonstrated his savvy awareness of 'soft power', describing Rong's powerful backhand and forehand drives as constituting a "spiritual nuclear weapon".

Here is some footage of Rong at the 1959 championships (starts at 06:25).

Another Chinese player, Zhuang Zedong, won the following three championships, from 1961-5 (there is footage of his play in the video above at 08:40).

But this growth spurt in the international sporting arena was cut short; China did not send a team to the next World Championships in 1967, because by then the Cultural Revolution was underway, during which the country was turned entirely inwards on itself, and the routines of daily life were often violent and unpredictable.

Zhuang Zedong
In 1968, two important things happened:  North Vietnam launched the 'Tet Offensive' and thereby increased the domestic pressure on President Nixon to withdraw U.S. forces from the country, for which he needed China's co-operation; and political instability reached China's sporting elite, when Red Guards put three members of the national table tennis team under house arrest.

At the outset of the Cultural Revolution, professional sportsmen were denounced as "sprouts of revisionism." The danger for the CPC of using sport as a political tool was that it had to be kept in check; it was a blunt tool and any ambiguity, such as Rong's having spent most of his life outside of China, was a worrying liability, and so he stood accused of being a foreign spy. So long as China had equally talented but more politically-correct players, Rong was expendable to the regime. Tragically, he and his two teammates committed suicide after being tortured in detention.

Perhaps Mao had allowed the political tumult to reach so high up in the sporting establishment as a kind of warning to sportspeople to be faultless "icons of revolutionary virtue." Or perhaps this had been an example of the Red Guards going too far on their own initiative. Either way, it sent a clear signal to Rong's colleagues to obey orders from the top - the only problem being that the orders themselves were far from clear.


Although they stayed at home, the Chinese table tennis team resumed training in 1969. Zhuang was the star player. He was a politically reliable former army man, with a penchant for speaking in slogans. For instance: "to play table tennis is a revolutionary endeavour and serves the interest of the people; it is not for fun or for the opportunity to show off."

Yet even Zhuang found himself implicated in Cultural Revolution-era paranoia; he was detained along with other players for alledgedly allying themselves too closely with Mao's rival, Liu Shaoqi.

A sign greeting the visiting U.S. team to the PRC in 1971
It is easy to look back at public figures who talked like this as if they were all either cranks or had all been brainwashed, but in fact the fear that China might be attacked from overseas was very prevalent at the time, and reached all the way to the leadership. Since the Sino-Soviet split had opened up at the beginning of the decade, relations between the PRC and the USSR had rapidly deteriorated, culminating in clashes between their border troops on the Ussuri River in 1969.

Fear of attack from the Soviet Union dominated Mao's geopolitical thinking at the start of the 1970s. Fear of electoral defeat without a semi-orderly exit from Vietnam gripped Nixon. Separately, the two men came to see each other as the 'lesser evil' in the triangular diplomacy of the Cold War, and they recognised that a limited friendship of convenience could be mutually beneficial.

Unfortunately neither country had a way to communicate its sincere interest to the other. From 1954-72 the U.S. and PRC had no official relations with one another, and communicated only via their embassies in Poland and Switzerland. When they started sending signals that they were seeking better relations, the long period of separation meant that their hints got lost in translation - they lacked a detailed understanding of the other's domestic politics, and thus a shared language in which to frankly conduct their diplomacy.

For example, in 1970 Mao invited the veteran American journalist Edgar Snow for one last meeting with him. It was publicised heavily in the Chinese press as an expression of authentic international friendship, and Mao had the photo below put on the front page of the People's Daily in the hope that the Nixon administration would take the hint and get in touch.

The only problem was that Edgar Snow had no credibility in Washington because of his Communist sympathies, so its significance went unrecognised.

As an indication of just how isolated China had been in the years before ping-pong diplomacy, here is a clip of an American news broadcast anticipating Nixon's visit in 1972. The anchorman draws comparisons between the U.S. and PRC, but the overriding impression is that he is describing a newly-discovered planet.

Meanwhile, the Chinese ping pong team were preparing to re-emerge at the 31st World Championships in Nagoya, Japan. As the date of the competition drew nearer, politics intervened again - North Korea and the exiled head of state in Cambodia both requested that China withdraw in protest against Japan's membership of the Asian Table Tennis Federation, a body that recognised the Republic of China on Taiwan as the legitimate government of the whole of China. Zhou Enlai had already seen the potential for the contest to be a springboard for improved ties with the U.S., so he asked the Chinese team for their opinion - to his disappointment, they supported the idea of a boycott.

On Zhou's advice, Mao sent the team to Japan in March 1971 with strict instructions governing how they conducted their interaction with the Americans: they could shake hands, although it was discouraged, but they were forbidden from initiating conversation, exchanging flags or posing for photographs with American players. The competition was "a political battle."

Yet they were officially dispatched under the banner of "friendship first, competition second." This apparent contradiction illustrates the nervousness of the PRC leadership about making tentative gestures to which it could not predict the American response, and their fear of losing face in a very public arena.

It took a spontaneous chance encounter to finally break the ice. A 19-year old American player named Glenn Cowan was leaving the training ground for the stadium one morning and inadvertently jumped aboard the bus reserved for the Chinese team. He stood at the front in awkward silence until at last he informed the curious passengers via a translator that his long hair and baggy jeans were not so unusual in his home country. Zhuang Zedong, who was sitting at the back, replied that they should feel free to converse as friends, since the meeting between Mao and Edgar Snow had symbolised that this was China's policy.

Here is Zhuang remembering that first encounter, and how he had been motivated by conflicting orders from on above: "In a changing world, only the clairvoyance of great men could grasp the seemingly ordinary but essential moment."

The meeting made headlines in the Japanese newspapers the next day. Zhuang and Cowan were photographed shaking hands and they exchanged gifts of a brocaded tapestry from Huangzhou and a 'Let It Be' t-shirt. When he returned to China to face criticism for his behaviour, Zhuang said, "Chairman Mao told us we should differentiate between American policymakers and common people. What was wrong with my action?" Nevertheless the Chinese government decided to reject a proposal from the manager of the U.S. team for a bilateral sporting exchange.

It was Mao's impulsive reaction to the photograph of Zhuang and Cowan that would be the turning-point. Mao was lying in bed, signing-off on decisions taken elsewhere in the bureaucratic machine when he saw the pictures and was suddenly inspired. According to Jung Chang's biography of Mao, "his eyes lit up and he called Zhuang 'a good diplomat.'" In On China, Dr. Kissinger conveys the scene:

"Mao lay "slumped over the table" in a sleeping-pill-induced haze. Suddenly he croaked to his nurse, telling her to phone the Foreign Ministry - "to invite the American team to visit China." The nurse recalled asking him, "Does your word count after taking sleeping pills?" Mao replied, "Yes, it counts, every word counts. Act promptly, or it will be too late!""


In 1971, the 15-member U.S. table tennis team became the first non-communist American delegation to visit China since 1949. Premier Zhou provided a packed itinerary for the players: they visited the Great Wall, watched ballet and a revolutionary opera staged by Mao's wife, and learned that many Chinese people were unaware a man had landed on the moon. They travelled by train from Canton, to Peking, to Shanghai.

They also played two exhibition matches to packed stadium audiences - it was dubbed "the ping heard around the world."

The superiority of the Chinese team gave them the diplomatic option of going easy on the Americans, of which, as the retrospective in the video below shows, the Americans were well aware at the time.

It was a momentous occasion, signified by their meeting with Zhou, who stressed that the visit was intended to open up improved relations between the two countries; as he later put it, "the small ball set the big one, the earth, in motion."

Of the American players, Cowan arguably attracted the most attention wherever he went in China because of the contrast between his free-flowing hippy fashion and the drab 'Mao suits' which were ubiquitous at that time. The way that Cowan described the trip afterwards suggests a certain degree of romanticising the poverty he would have witnessed, and the bonds of interdependency forged by living in such a large population: "I loved the Chinese", he said, "Where else, man, would you see a child of three carrying a child of two in his arms?"

Here he is, effortlessly drawing attention (some of it contrived, as he spent much of the trip trying to get pictures that would get him on the cover of Life magazine):

When he was asked by Cowan for his thoughts on the hippie movement, Zhou replied that it was not political enough: "Young people ought to try different things. But they should try to find something in common with the majority." The following day's New York Times headline read: ZHOU, 73, AND 'TEAM HIPPIE' HIT IT OFF. A year later, Cowan won the accolade of Rolling Stone's 'Groupie of the Year.'

The White House took the hint, and immediately pushed through key changes to their foreign policy as regards China, the most significant being the ending of a 21-year old trade embargo dating from the Korean War. Dr. Kissinger recognised that ping pong had provided the perfect cover for the Chinese to publicly engage the Americans without the risk of losing face if their entreaties were rebuffed:

"It committed China publicly to the course heretofore confined to the most secret diplomatic channels. In that sense, it was reassurance. But it was also a warning of what course China could pursue were the secret communications thwarted. Beijing could then undertake a public campaign - what would today be called "people-to-people diplomacy" - and appeal to the growing protest movement in American society on the basis of another "lost chance for peace."

The hippie was followed by the ultimate anti-hippie just ten months later, when Nixon made his historic visit to the PRC. It was the beginning of rapprochement between the two powers, and the first step towards the full restoration of official relations in 1979. Here is a clip from the PBS Cold War series on the meeting.

Later that year the Chinese table tennis team visited the U.S. to play some return games. They were warmly greeted, notwithstanding a small group of Cold Warriors and Christian activists who protested the visit - and were booed into submission by the rest of the audience.

In his role as head of the delegation, Zhuang performed card tricks for captive audiences and dispensed such pearls of wisdom as: "Though Ping-Pong is a highly competitive sport, the is no real victory or defeat. There is always both. Just as there is no life without death, There is no death without life. The whole world is unified like this." On his return to China he was appointed Minister of Physical Culture.

After Mao's death in 1976 Zhuang lost his government post and was made to work as a street-sweeper. He was publicly denounced by the government for "wearing a Swiss-made watch." During four years in solitary confinement, he, like his teammates a decade earlier, attempted suicide. He was later rehabilitated, however, and divides his time between professional coaching and public speaking.

The story of Cowan's return to America does not have such a happy ending. He was diagnosed with manic depression, developed a drug problem and became obsessed with Mao and Mick Jagger. "I do escape in drugs", he said, "They give me a world that fits my needs." What he seemed to need was a worldview that matched the purity and innocence he had perceived in China: "life is simple", he had told his teammates as their train passed field after field of peasants working the land. He went on to work as a teacher and sold shoes, spending many of his later years living on the streets.


What wider lessons can we draw from this episode? It would seem to suggest that international sporting events can be used to make a political argument that brings about a desired effect.

But I think it also shows the limited conditions under which sport can be used as an instrument of politics. The message was basic - it was not so much about the content of an ongoing dialogue as it was an invitation to resume dialogue. If the table-tennis championships had been leveraged to influence specific policies, it might not have worked so well because interest groups would have piled in and blurred the signals ; instead, such contentious matters could be left to the Mao-Nixon summit.

Moreover it was seen by the Chinese as a low-risk manoeuvre because if the Americans had rejected their invitation, they would have seemed petty and childish. And yet it only really worked in this way - the product of a schizophrenic political campaign and sheer luck - because of the extreme level of political interference in the Chinese team. In the long-run, this degree of manipulation devalues sport as an instrument of internationalism in a more subtle way - by depriving spectators from all countries of the chance to watch a fair test of ability amongst all of their teams, an experience that breeds a kind of patriotism that George Orwell distinguished from narrower forms of nationalism.

In his Notes on Nationalism Orwell wrote that patriotism is the desire that your team will win, whereas nationalism is an automatic presumption of superiority. The former, whilst it reflects the nation-building potential of sport, is more contingent and fragile than the latter, and can incorporate a willingness to learn from the tactics of other countries; China reversed its decline in the table tennis rankings in the 1980s by adopting the winning tactics of breakthrough teams from Sweden and South Korea, but it was only able to do so because post-Mao political reforms had abolished his rigid prescriptions for how all table-tennis players ought to be trained.

As the Olympics showed in 2008, the impulse to politicise sport remains. I hope to have shown that ping pong diplomacy is actually more of a cautionary tale than is commonly supposed.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012


This week we will likely witness a landmark event in China's re-emergence as a great power: the country's first mannual docking of one spacecraft with another.

That does not sound terribly exciting, but the ability to transport a crew safely to and from an unmanned vessel is crucial to China's plan to create its own permanent space station, which in turn is vital for acquiring the scientific understanding to do more exciting things - like sending probes to the moon, or even a man to Mars.

Here is a BBC News report on Saturday's launch of the Shenzhou-9 in the Gobi Desert:

When complete, the manned docking of the craft with the Tiangong-1 ("Heavenly Vessel") - a model for the building-blocks of a space station - will put China in the exclusive club of three nations capable of carrying out this technically complex procedure - the other two being the USA and Russia. Shenzhou-9 is also carrying China's first female taikonaut, Liu Yang.

Here is an illustrated guide to the docking procedure:

Much of the coverage has acknowledged it as a great achievement, particularly for a country with still-developing per capita wealth. But China's space program is still far behind the rest of the club - it's roughly where the U.S. was in the mid-1960s, with its Gemini program.

The mission is a source of considerable national pride in China. And although some of that has to do with a government publicity campaign, the troubled history of China's space program gives good reasons to suppose that much of the enthusiasm is genuinely felt.


By the fall of 1944, the Nazi war effort was increasingly desperate. Hitler ordered his top scientists to make a new type of terror-weapon that could be launched on a rocket at civilian populations - the result was the explosive V-2 rocket, which caused great fear when it was targeted at London and Antwerp.

The invention was made possible by Germany's large community of amateur rocketeers - the man in charge of the project, a Prussian aristocrat named Wernher von Braun, was a member of the popular Society for Space Travel.

But V-2 was introduced too late to change German fortunes. Sensing the game was up, Von Braun turned himself over to American troops. The V-2 factory was located in East Berlin, which the Allies had agreed would be a Soviet-occupied zone - so Americans rushed to get there first and shipped out 341 trucks' worth of hardware. Under 'Operation Paperclip', the Americans invited many of the German rocket scientists to come back to the U.S. to contribute their skills, and foremost among them was Von Braun.

Among the U.S. rocket researchers who benefited from this injection of talent was a brilliant Chinese-born and American-educated scientist named Qian Xuesen. A former U.S. army officer, Qian had been at the forefront of the wartime effort at the California Institute of Technology to respond to the invention of the V-2.

Qian interviewed Von Braun extensively and was greatly inspired by his research. Around this time, he began making ambitious plans for an intercontinental space plane, and in some respects he was ahead of his time in foreshadowing features of the future U.S. Space Shuttle. He wrote a book called Interplanetary Flight and, later in life, he focussed on studying connections between extra-sensory perception (EST) and the traditional Chinese practices of qigong.

Below is a picture of Qian who was, according to a senior scientist on China's lunar program, "the father of China's space industry."

In 1949 Qian's talents were recognised when he was chosen to be the first director of Caltech's Jet Propulsion Centre. Less than a year later, however, he was thrust under the incriminating glare of America's 'Red Scare', and his future - and that of the Chinese space program - was changed forever.


In 1950 Qian's application for American citizenship was rejected, because the FBI had found American Communist Party documents from the 1930s that featured his name. It was the era of McCarthy, and paranoid anti-communist witch-hunts that ranged across the U.S. government.

One of the more brazen manifestations of McCarthyism was a 1952 film called Red Planet Mars, in which scientists discover that the inhabitants of Mars are all communists, and the utopian example this sets leads to chaos on earth as various lobby groups plot to bring about the Martian way of life. Except that it all turns out to be a plot by Nazis. The obvious solution is to start a revolution in the USSR that will replace the government there with a priestly monarchy.

The Radio Times Film Guide describes it as: "one of the oddest sci-fi movies ever made, and worth sitting through just to feel your jaw drop at various junctures."

When he tried to leave for China, Qian was arrested and detained, then kept under strict surveillance for five years, during which time the U.S. government decided whether to deport him to the PRC. At last, he was returned to his place of birth, a decision that the then Undersecretary of the U.S. Navy described as "the stupidest thing this country ever did."

Shortly after Qian returned to China, the Soviet Union stunned the world by becoming the first country to put a satellite into space. In 1957, the bleep-bleep emitted by Sputnik-1 was heard around the world. In the Cold War context of superpower rivalry, it was a public humiliation for the U.S. - the first heat of the 'space race' was won by communists.

It was also a wake-up call for the PRC leadership, who had bristled with irritation when Khruschev delivered his 'secret speech' in 1956 denouncing Stalin's cult of personality - and, supposedly by implication, those who had looked up to him, like Mao. When Mao visited Moscow soon after the Sputnik triumph, Mao was awed by Soviet technology, and in the early years of the PRC he'd tried to catch up with them by inviting in masses of Soviet technicians and manufacturers. A year later, Mao declared to a meeting of the Eighth Party Congress:

"Whatever happens, we must have Sputniks. [...] If we're going to throw one up there then throw a big one, one that weighs two tons. Of course we start throwing small, but with one that is at least two tons. We won't do ones the size of chicken eggs like America's."

Mao saw Sputnik as proof that the USSR had achieved parity with the U.S., and drew the conclusion that China was thus freed from any need to exercise diplomatic restraint. If the two super-powers had reached a hostile but stable equilibrium, then it didn't matter what China said or did, because neither super-power would dare to intervene for fear of retaliation by the other. China's relative weakness was a geopolitical advantage. Accordingly, Mao began denouncing the Soviets - initially via proxies - for abandoning the cause of global revolution in order to pursue "peaceful coexistence" with the U.S.

One of the first victims of the Sino-Soviet split was China's newborn space program, which was an extension of its ballistic missile program. In Oct. 1956, Qian had helped found the Fifth Academy of the National Defence Ministry, which requisitioned China's first laboratories dedicated to space research (codenamed 'Group 581'). The government announced a Twelve-Year Plan for Chinese Aerospace, and in 1958 China's first missile-testing base was established. But by the time the Chinese Academy of Sciences had made developing satellites its top priority, the Soviets were reconsidering their role in China and the volatile politics of the 'Great Leap Forward' were underway.

Qian Xuesen and Zhou Enlai toast the Fifth Academy
 In the period of the Great Leap Forward, Party and government officials raced to outdo eachother in setting themselves ever greater and more utopian targets to achieve. They did this because they had limited information about what was happening in other parts of the country, which were reported by the central government as having made miraculous achievements. Local officials made exaggerated claims, the centre then demanded even more, and the process repeated itself in a farcical spiral that became a tragedy.

The members of Group 581 were no different from the other branches of government when it came to feeding this tide of excessive optimism, and they promised Mao they would be ready to launch a satellite into space in just 15 months, in time for the tenth anniversary of the founding of the PRC in 1949. Yet they realised this was an impossible task; they had only managed to produce a short-range ballistic missile by reverse-engineering a Russian model (a modified V-2 the Soviets had seized from Von Braun's factory). In 1958 a nervous CAS delegation visited the USSR to ask for help with Project 581. Unsurprisingly, Moscow turned them away, and in 1960 the Soviets withdrew all their advisors from China.


In the aftermath of the Great Leap debacle, Mao was sidelined in the leadership and the CPC "moderates", like Deng Xiaoping, tried to restore a semblance of political stability and realism in decisionmaking.


When China's first satellite failed to materialise on the heels of the American Explorer-1, Deng ordered the CAS to learn how to walk before it tried to run again. They should focus on building sub-orbital sounding rockets to probe the atmosphere first, and turn to satellites only after that had been achieved - and after the economy had recovered (Qian's first research institute only had one telephone). As Mao lamented that China could not even put a potato in space, Yang Guoning, assistant director of the 7th Machinery Bureau recalls:

"The country was broke! Human spaceflight requires frighteningly large sums of money. Zhou Enlai confessed in exasperation that he was taking money from one pocket to put in the other. Even Qian didn't have the nerve to plead with Premier Zhou for money."  

In the long-run, this slow-and-steady approach reaped dividends, and by 1960 China had launched its first indigenously-designed liquid-fuelled rocket, the T-7M. This rapid turnaround in concrete achievement came in spite of the shoestring budget on which the space scientists operated in the first half of the '60s - key engine parts were handmade, and the T-7M was fuelled using a bicycle pump. The launch site lacked even basic communications equipment - the commander could only issue instructions to the team by calling and making gestures.

Zhao Jiuzhang
In 1964 China successfully tested its first medium-range Dongfeng ballistic missile and its first recoverable sounding rocket. Until this time, though subject to the demands and objectives of the People's Liberation Army, the CAS had been formally distinct, researching satellites parallel to the PLA's research into rockets for nuclear missiles. Now, emboldended by the PLA's impressive progress, the satellite and missile programs were effectively merged. A prominent advocate of the merger was a CAS scientist named Zhao Jiuzhang. Pooling the resources of both institutions and research projects would, he argued, "hit two birds with one stone."

Another, and perhaps a more fundamental, motivation lied behind this amalgamation of effort - a sense in the early 1960s that political stability had truly been restored, and that the chaotic and murderous political campaigns of the 1950s had been left behind. In 1963 Premier Zhou Enlai announced the policy of the 'Four Modernisations' - in agriculture, industry, national defence and science - signalling that the government had decided to prioritise practical objectives over ideology.

Zhou Enlai announcing the 'Four Modernisations'
It seemed like a political environment more conducive to free experimentation and risk-taking, without the subjection of scientific reason to the demands of Party power-struggles. Only in such a context did the immediate gains of increased funding outweigh the risks that the science might get imbroiled in political infighting again.

But with the 'Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution', politics brought the early progress of China's space program to a halt once more. The years from 1966-76 were years of shattered hopes. At the same time as America and Russia were sending men (and women) into space, China was in the grip of a political movement that accorded authority on the basis of "redness" over that of "expertise."

At first, it seemed as if the connections between the space program and China's nuclear weapons development would keep the scientists safely quarantined from any political campaigns - it was assumed the government accorded these defence capabilities too high a priority to play politics with them, and initially that assumption was valid. In fact, the space program made important progress in the first phases of the Cultural Revolution. In 1968 overlapping agencies were consolidated into CAST - the Chinese Academy of Space Technology - and Premier Zhou ordered PLA units to guard the space research centres.

Dong Fang Hong-1
 However, the increased funding and security came with political strings. In 1966 Qian was given the go-ahead to construct a working satellite, but only on the condition that it be more advanced than the first Russian and American satellites. As the launch date of 1970 drew closer, the degree of political interference in every aspect of the satellite's design became all-pervasive. It became so full of 'Mao badges' that scientists warned they were jeopardising the entire mission.

Initially conceived of as the first in a series of sophisticated devices, the Dong Fang Hong was eventually stripped down to a crude orbital loudspeaker for propaganda. The government now decided its sole purpose was publicity, which it expressed in a 12-character slogan: "get it up, follow it around, make it seen, make it heard" (unfortunately, it was launched into unclear skies to coincide with a political timetable). In keeping with Mao's original vision, it was the heaviest first satellite placed in orbit, exceeding the combined mass of the other four.

And, once in orbit, all it could actually do was play the first few bars of The East is Red (02:05):

The launch of China's first satellite was nonetheless a crucial achievement. This success, and the Apollo-11 moon landing, galvanised Qian to set a more ambitious goal - to put a man in space by 1973.

In 1968 the Central Military Commission ordered the Chinese Air Force to screen its top pilots. At the start of 1971 the best in the country were summoned to a hotel in the suburbs of Beijing, where they were told they had been chosen for a secret mission: it was China's first manned spaceflight programme (codenamed 'Dawn'). In the city of Xichang, in China's mountainous far west, a secret 'space city' was built to train 88 elite pilots selected for the mission - 'Base 27.'

The fledgling 'Dawn' program, and some details about its rather chaotic organisation, is detailed in the first part of this Discovery documentary (from 02:30):

Marshal Lin Biao

Ultimately, it proved impossible to keep the space program in safe isolation from the factional conflicts raging around it, and the decision to work more closely with the military came back to haunt the space researchers. 

The man at the pinnacle of the PLA was Marshal Lin Biao. Lin was also Mao's anointed successor and he had compiled the 'Little Red Book' of Mao's quotations. But in 1971 Lin was implicated in a plot to assassinate Mao and seize power in a coup, and both he and his family were killed when their plane crashed in Mongolia whilst trying to flee from the authorities.

Wreckage of Lin Biao's plane

In the wake of Lin's death, the CPC carried out a purge of his close associates and colleagues, including those in the PLA, the Air Force, and the aeronautics and space research institutes. One of those deposed for his supposed ties to Lin was Zhao Jiuzhang, who was relegated to obscurity and later committed suicide.

The 'Dawn' program never recovered from the shock. Although many of Qian's generation of scientists were safeguarded from the worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution, the same was not true of the next generation - China's Higher Education sector was thrown into chaos. Mao suspended the manned spaceflight program, reasoning that, "We should take care of affairs here on earth first, and deal with extraterrestrial matters a little later." It was formally wound-down by Deng Xiaoping on his return to power in 1978.


The post-Mao leadership inherited a country exhausted by political campaigns. They chose to focus on realistic objectives that would improve living standards - and re-launched Zhou's 'Four Modernisations.' Throwing money at trying to put a man into space did not seem a high priority - not even on grounds of national prestige (Deng famously opined that China should "bide its time").

But developments in the early 1980s convinced Deng that China could not afford to postpone staking its claim in space. The turning-point was President Reagan's 'Star Wars' speech in 1983 - what Gregory Kulacki (co-author of a history of the Chinese space program, A Place For One's Mat) has called China's "Sputnik moment."

For more about the Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI) that Reagan launched in this speech, here is a clip from the excellent PBS Cold War series:

After the speech, top scientists persuaded Deng that SDI was just the beginning of a comprehensive U.S. plan to dominate space with their advanced technology, and that they were on the brink of re-launching their Apollo program. Deng declared that China must "focus our energies on urgently needed practical satellite applications", particularly 'hit-to-kill' technology needed to accurately shoot down high-altitude objects that might pose a threat.

Recovering a satellite, late 1970s

However, having these ground-based capabilities would not be enough - to secure its strategic interests, China needed a physical presence in space. This was because the international law governing countries' rights to occupy stretches of the earth's orbit - which is, ultimately, a finite space at any given level of satellite technology - allocated these rights on a 'first come, first serve' basis. In other words, if China waited too long to start sending up lots of useful satellites, it might find its options to be more constrained than if it acted sooner.

As described by Gregory Kulacki, the Chinese leadership sensed there was an international race to launch satellites into geosynchronous orbit. Moreover, Deng believed that China's satellite technology had reached a level of development where they could serve purposes beyond security - in a memorable phrase, he said that by broadcasting lectures to televisions across the country, they could create "a classroom of unlimited size."

Ren Xinmin

There was a problem with this plan: in 1979, after experiencing delays developing their own advanced satellites, the Chinese tried to purchase satellites from the Americans - but they couldn't afford to buy a single one.

Once again, though, it was probably in China's best long-term interest that it was forced by necessity to invent its own satellite technology - since there was a pressing need for quantity, besides quality, it made more sense to acquire the know-how to make their own, which they could then do at a lower per-unit cost than buying them from overseas.

In 1984 China achieved its next breakthrough when it launched its first modern communications satellite. As detailed by Joan Johnson-Freese in her book The Chinese Space Program, the project proceeded through trial-and-error, overseen by a space scientist named Ren Xinmin, who became the project's chief firefighter. At the 11th hour, when it became clear that key parts of the satellite were not ready to be launched, the press re-labelled it an "experimental" launch so that it could be reported as a complete success.

A Long March rocket launch

The satellite program would play a key part in resuscitating the manned spaceflight projects, as the two fields of technology were complementary. There was a vigorous debate within the CPC leadership at the time about whether China ought to be diverting resources into space when there was so much to be done on earth. The final verdict was that to not respond to SDI would be to take too great a risk; as Premier Li Peng reportedly told Ren, "It can't be said that going ahead with the human spaceflight program is a wise decision, but it is a decision that must be taken."

Until they were in a position to seriously pursue manned spaceflight, the government's focus was on lucrative commercial opportunities. After the Challenger disaster in 1986, NASA had temporarily ceased its space launches. As a result, there was a global shortage of launch sites relative to demand. In the late-1980s, China opened up its launch sites to foreign governments and companies to launch their satellites on Chinese rockets, and designed expendable rockets for this purpose - the 'Long March' series.Within ten years, China controlled a 10% share of world launch services.

But to the U.S. government, this was a murky enterprise from the start. Due to the close ties between the Chinese scientific establishment and the PLA, the U.S. government worried that co-operation between space scientists in both countries, even if only as part of a commercial exchange, would result in a loss of military secrets through "dual-purpose" technology; for this reason, they rejected China's bid to participate in the 16-nation International Space Station (ISS).

In the mid-1990s, a series of tragic launch failures seemed to prove them right.

The Chinese set up a team to investigate what had caused the 1996 LM-2 disaster, but the international insurance industry - which had to compensate foreign investors for China's launch failures - insisted that an independent external panel review China's own investigation. The review panel was chaired by a representative of Loral, one of the companies that had a lost a satellite.

This all took place in the aftermath of the 1989 killings in Tiananmen Square, when diplomatic relations between the U.S. and the PRC had cooled (in his 1992 campaign for the Presidency, Bill Clinton had lambasted George Bush Snr. for being soft on the "butchers of Beijing"). Although the Cold War was finished, American fears of China were not, and in 1998 a Congressional Committee was set up to investigate the rocket failures.

It published its findings in the Cox Report. It alleged that American corporations had violated U.S. controls on technology transfer by assisting the Chinese investigation in identifying flaws in their rocket design. Although the Committee conceded that this specific knowledge did not have immediate military applications, it claimed the vague export regulations had been violated in a more roundabout way - by showing the Chinese how to conduct a proper, rigorous investigation, the corporations had helped them to speed-up their space program - and, perhaps, their missiles.


In the same year that the Cox Report was published, China successfully launched its first (empty) manned space vehicle - three decades after Qian had proposed his first design for such a craft. A series of breakthroughs followed: a manned spaceflight in 2003; a lunar orbiter in 2007; a space walk in 2008; and an unmanned space docking in 2011. Qian lived long enough to witness China's first space walk.

In recent years, the Chinese space program has made slow but steady progress. Although still excluded from the ISS, China has co-operated with Russia on plans to send probes to Mars, and with French scientists on satellites to study the sun's surface. Xinhua reported that China plans to make more than 20 manned space voyages in the next decade. Mike Griffin, a NASA administrator, has said that, "The Chinese have a carefully thought-out human space-flight program that will take them up to parity with the U.S. and Russia. They're investing to make China a strategic world power."

According to The Economist, China's political and economic model has turned into a competitive advantage, allowing it to plan for longer-term goals:

"Unlike the gung-ho days of the Soviet/American space race, China’s manned space programme is proceeding with cautious deliberation. Four missions in four years is not exactly boldly going where no man has gone before. This slow and steady approach might, however, win the space race’s undeclared re-run, to return human beings to the moon. Russia has no contemplated system for doing so, and America’s is, to put it politely, a paper spacecraft. As in most things, the Chinese government is playing its cards close to its chest. But do not be surprised if the next human to walk on the moon is Chinese."
Kulacki has argued that the international community still harbours flawed assumptions about China's space program - most notably, assumptions that China has only progressed by stealing technology from abroad, and that their program was wholly a reaction to the U.S. demonstration of technological power in the First Gulf War. The history reveals both to be false: key stages of development were indigenous because of China's international isolation, and China's space scientists had predicted current technologies back in the 1970s.

I will give the final word to Ren Xinmin, who was quoted as saying that the most important reason why the Chinese space program moved forward at a glacial pace for most of its history was that the scientists lacked the "freedom to fail" due to political imperatives. Although much has changed since those early days, there are still symptoms of this deficiency - the launch date of Shenzhou-9 was only made public briefly beforehand, and television broadcasts of the launch were delayed by a half-hour.

Perhaps this is the dillemma for those at the cutting-edge of science in a one-party state - in one sense you might be granted more "freedom to fail" with more secure funding and long-term planning, but in another sense, once a project is made public, technical failure becomes political failure, which cannot be tolerated.