01 September 2014

China’s Space Development History: A Comparison of the Rocket and Satellite Sectors

This detailed history of Chinas leading space sectors draws on and cites demonstrably authoritative Chinese-language sources previously unavailable in English.

Andrew S. Erickson, “China’s Space Development History: A Comparison of the Rocket and Satellite Sectors,” Acta Astronautica 103 (October/November 2014): 142–67.

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U.S. Naval War College, United States
John King Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, Harvard University, United States

Received 3 March 2014, Revised 16 May 2014, Accepted 16 June 2014, Available online 26 June 2014.


  • China’s first space achievements were in military/civilian rockets and satellites.
  • Nuclear power status and deterrence required missiles to credibly deliver warheads.
  • Satellites were also prioritized for strategic reasons and lack of import options.
  • Foreign heritage and prioritized domestic efforts enabled progress amid obstacles.
  • China now has many increasingly-advanced and -supported systems, some cutting-edge.


China is the most recent great power to emerge in aerospace. It has become the first developing nation to achieve some measure of aerospace production capability across the board. Outside the developed aerospace powers, only China has demonstrated competence concerning all aspects of a world-class aerospace industry: production of advanced rockets, satellites, and aircraft and of their supporting engineering, materials, and systems. As an emerging great power during the Cold War, China was still limited in resources, technology access, and capabilities. It thereby faced difficult choices and constraints. Yet it achieved increasing, though uneven, technological levels in different aerospace sub-sectors. Explaining this variance can elucidate challenges and opportunities confronting developing nations sharing limitations that previously constrained China.

Rockets (missiles and space launch vehicles/SLVs) and satellites (military and civilian) were two areas of early achievement for China, and represent this article’s two in-depth case studies. Initial import of American and Soviet knowledge and technology, coupled with national resources focused under centralized leadership enabled China to master missiles and satellites ahead of other systems. Early in the Cold War, great power status hinged on atomic development. China devoted much of its limited technical resources to producing nuclear weapons in order to “prevent nuclear blackmail,” “break the superpowers’ monopoly,” and thereby secure great power status. Beijing’s second strategic priority was to develop reliable ballistic missiles to credibly deliver warheads, thereby supporting nuclear deterrence. Under Chairman Mao Zedong’s direction and the guidance of the American-educated Dr. Qian Xuesen (H.S. Tsien), missile development became China’s top aerospace priority. Satellites were also prioritized for military-strategic reasons and because they could not be purchased from abroad following the Sino-Soviet split. By the Cold War’s end, China had achieved comprehensive rocket and satellite capabilities. Today it is pursuing cutting-edge systems in both areas, continuing formidable indigenous development while absorbing foreign technology where possible. To understand the reasons for China’s aerospace development trajectory it is necessary to consider closely its specific history and larger context.

The article will therefore examine the decision-making, organization, and technological development that made such progress possible.


      1. Highlights
      2. Abstract
      3. Keywords
      4. 1. Transplanting and nurturing an industry
      5. 2. Rockets: longtime Chinese aerospace leader
        • 2.1. Nuclear program: early missile driver
        • 2.2. Qian fathers missile and satellite programs
        • 2.3. Early missile development
          • 2.3.1. Promotion by Qian
          • 2.3.2. Soviet assistance
          • 2.3.3. Self-reliance
          • 2.3.4. Progress amid domestic obstacles
        • 2.4. Maturing programs
          • 2.4.1. Reform trajectory
          • 2.4.2. Military advancement
          • 2.4.3. Commercial space launch
        • 2.5. Current and projected capabilities
      6. 3. Chinese satellite development: successful second to rockets
        • 3.1. Launching satellite development
        • 3.2. Maturing programs
        • 3.3. Current capabilities
        • 3.4. Future plans and projections
      7. 4. Conclusion

Acknowledgements & Clarifications

This paper was presented during the 64th IAC in Beijing.

The views expressed here are those of the author alone. They do not represent the policies or estimates of the U.S. Navy or any other organization of the U.S. government. The author is grateful for invaluable suggestions from Michael Chase, two anonymous reviewers, and a former U.S. official.

This article will not address China’s successful human spaceflight program. While earlier efforts failed for lack of funding and prioritization, the Shenzhou program (Project 921) initiated in January 1992 allowed China to become the third nation to orbit an astronaut independently in 2003 and achieve its first (the world’s third independent) extra vehicular activity in 2008. In 2011, a three astronaut-mission docked with the Tiangong-1 target module in preparation for building a full-fledged space station. For details, see the 中国载人航天科普丛书 [China Manned Space Science Book Series] published by 中国宇航出版社 [China Astronautics Press].


1. Transplanting and nurturing an industry

Aerospace has been a strategic sector for China: its development has been critical to fulfilling Beijing’s great power ambitions and represents the cutting edge of larger technological development. In the early years of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) under Mao’s leadership, aerospace development addressed important national interests including nuclear deterrence, military modernization, and international status. Broader infrastructure development and resource management would become important following Deng Xiaoping’s post-1978 reform and opening up of China. These efforts, together with civil–military integration, increased organizational efficiency and heightened emphasis on commercial launchers and satellites.

Lacking even relevant raw materials and trained personnel initially, China had to both import and further develop an aerospace industry. The Communist Party of China (CCP) launched its first Five Year Plan for industrial and agricultural development and production in 1949 determined to address these and other limitations. Lingering deficiencies necessitated significant Soviet guidance and assistance, which were secured by the February 1950 Treaty of Friendship, Alliance, and Mutual Assistance. Soliciting extensive Soviet aid and focusing on development of heavy industrial plants and equipment, China doubled industrial capacity within five years.

By this time, U.S.-educated missile scientist Qian Xuesen had returned to his home country via politically-charged McCarthyist deportation on October 8, 1955. Qian brought with him considerable knowledge developed as master’s student and professor at MIT; a doctoral student, faculty member, the Robert H. Goddard Professor of Jet Propulsion, and the first director of the Daniel and Florence Guggenheim Jet Propulsion Center at Caltech; and a founder of Jet Propulsion Laboratory. His expertise was further honed as a consultant to the United States Army Air Forces, for which he was temporarily assigned the rank of Colonel, and inspecting German rocket scientists, their facilities, and V-2 rockets. In naming Qian its Person of the Year in 2007, Aviation Week & Space Technology wrote of his interrogation of Wernher von Braun, “No one then knew that the father of the future U.S. space program was being quizzed by the father of the future Chinese space program.” Qian would parlay this unique experience and technology transfer, coupled with internationally-recognized genius, into a critical role in establishing China’s aerospace program and directing its progress. While Qian was by far the most prominent Chinese space expert of his generation, one hundred Western-educated and -trained compatriots who returned simultaneously rounded out the indigenous pillars of the transplanted foundation upon which China built its initial space industry.

Marshal Nie Rongzhen was the first major People’s Liberation Army (PLA) technocrat, heading the National Defense Industry Office and its successor, the Commission of Science and Technology for National Defense (COSTND) from 1958 to 1970. Nie and his organization would be critical to establishing and supporting China’s rocket and satellite programs and keeping them on track through years of domestic political upheaval. Other guardians of these top-priority aerospace programs included Premier Zhou Enlai; military leader, military industry builder, and Defense Minister (1982–1988) General Zhang Aiping; Vice Premier and holder of top military positions General Luo Ruiqing; and Marshall Ye Jianying, who helped coordinate the ouster of the Gang of Four (first lady Jiang Qing and her radical political allies Wang Hongwen, Yao Wenyuan and Zhang Chunqiao) in 1976, and served as Defense Minister (1975–1978). Less-prioritized programs, such as China’s politically-ill-fated aviation industry, would not receive such nurturing or protection. Less firmly-rooted institutionally to begin with, they would subsequently suffer greatly from ideological infighting and disarray.

Thanks largely to high-level prioritization, China accrued a broad array of rocket and satellite successes. It tested the Dongfeng (DF)-2A (CSS-1) medium-range ballistic missile in 1964 and deployed it in 1966. In 1970, using the Changzheng (CZ)-1 SLV, China became the fifth nation to launch a satellite; Dongfanghong (DFH)-1’s mass exceeded that of the of the four previous countries’ first satellites combined. The DF-5 (CSS-4 Mod 1) intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) was test-flown in 1971, tested for its full-range of 9300 km over water in 1980, and deployed in 1981. In 1984, China launched the DFH-2 geostationary communications satellite (comsat). In 1988, China successfully test-launched the Julang (JL)-1 (CSS-N-3) submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). Most of these systems were not cutting-edge in capability, but no other developing nation could boast such a comprehensive array of them.

… … …

4. Conclusion

China built its space industry on a foundation of American and Soviet knowledge and Soviet hardware, and pursues foreign technology inputs actively to this day. Yet its Cold War achievements in rockets and secondary progress in satellites, as encapsulated in the “Two Bombs and One Satellite” (两单一星) rubric, demonstrate its capacity to achieve national military-technological goals through highly-prioritized megaprojects. These feats have been extolled as a model for future initiatives by such PRC leaders as Jiang Zemin, an electrical engineer by training who spent years rising through management in China’s state-owned electronics industry, making him well-placed to understand the requirements of modern civilian and military technology development. The official CCP Press-published reader on Jiang’s thought concerning national defense and military construction showcases his speeches in this area. Under the rubric of “firmly emphasizing doing some things while not doing others and concentrating forces on bringing forth key equipment,” he emphasized the importance of focusing initial investment on achieving breakthroughs concerning key technologies that promised disproportionate cost-effectiveness and military impact. Jiang “stressed the need to stand in the forefront of the world technological revolution….” He made similar points at a General Assembly on the Recognition of Science and Technology Experts Who Have Made Outstanding Contributions to the Development of “Two Bombs and One Satellite.”

The evolution of China’s aerospace programs from 1949 through the end of the Cold War suggests that leadership goals, driven in part by perceptions of strategic threat and lack of access to foreign technology—rather than inherent technological limitations or economic considerations per se—best explain this hierarchy of achievement. These political decisions have taken the form of great national financial and human capital commitments since the 1950s. By allocating the necessary physical and human capital, political decisions shaped the specific capabilities needed to achieve these goals. PRC politics over Cold War decades thus shaped relative progress in different aerospace subsectors, and caused Beijing to indigenize some aerospace areas ahead of others.

Under Mao and Zhou’s direction and the guidance of Qian and other military-industrial technocrats, China devoted much of its limited technical resources to producing nuclear weapons and missiles to deliver them; missile development became China’s top aerospace priority. Political decisions, not technological capacity, made Beijing prioritize nuclear weapons development, “unwaveringly [lend] strong support [to missile development] from beginning to end,” and to begin satellite development and launching. In practice, this led to a redoubling of emphasis on rocket/missile development. Nuclear weapons lie at the mercy of aerospace capabilities: they cannot provide credible deterrence without effective delivery systems. Satellites likewise rely on effective launch systems.

Top level support for rockets and satellites persisted despite political and technical challenges. According to the definitive official history of China’s Cold War space program, “Experts in charge of the technical work usually got nervous when an experiment failed, sensing the pressures on their shoulders. However, Deng Xiaoping, Ye Jianying, and Nie Rongzhen always came with the words ‘Failure is the mother of success’ and ‘A lesson from failure can be more valuable than success.’”

Particularly during the early Cold War years, specific strategic threats influenced Chinese aerospace development significantly. Mao and other PRC leaders prioritized the pursuit of capabilities they perceive as most urgently needed to address pressing strategic threats as determined by their perceptions of danger, at the expense of capabilities (e.g., aircraft) that could not address China’s most critical needs. They thus diverted scarce resources to developing nuclear weapons and the ballistic missiles to deliver them to resist nuclear coercion. Later short-range missiles were developed to address security concerns vis-à-vis foreign overflights and Soviet forces. Though satellite work started later than that for rockets, satellites were also prioritized for military reasons and because they could not be purchased from abroad following the Sino-Soviet split.

Beijing’s relative prioritization of rockets and satellites was revealed in even starker relief during the GLF and the CR, which undermined organizations and exacerbated resource competition—particularly for other programs such as aircraft. Initially one of China’s defense industry’s few early “pockets of adequacy,” and subsequently one of its leading “pockets of excellence,” China’s rocket/missile production has become relatively well-organized and capable.

China’s current aerospace growth is part of a larger technological transformation fueled by dramatically increased spending on research and development and access to foreign technology to a degree that was simply impossible during the Cold War. Now a potent combination of world-class technological competence and commercial dynamism is propelling development in ways that China’s government could not achieve alone. No longer solely reliant on state prioritization or even domestic development, programs enjoy consistent access to high-level PRC and foreign personnel, funding, and technology. Chinese strategic industrial sectors across the board are benefitting from these dynamics. However, the advanced nature of China’s rocket industry and the growing flexibility of its satellite industry suggest that they will remain leading sectors.