With China on the Moon

A ChinaFile Conversation

On January 2, China made history by successfully landing a vehicle on the far side of the moon. What does that milestone mean for China, the United States, and the future of space exploration? —The Editors


“What manner of things are the darkness and light? . . Whose compass measured out the nine-fold skies? . . How does heaven coordinate its motions? . . What is the virtue of the moon, the brightness of the night? . .”

2,300 years ago, the exiled statesman and poet Qu Yuan pondered these questions on the bank of the Yangtze River, as his Kingdom of Chu fell to the Qin. The Qin would defeat all other Warring States and establish the first Chinese empire. In the centuries following, Chinese astronomers worked in the office of the Grand Scribe, observing the stars and issuing calendars to mark the crowning of a new emperor or the beginning of a new dynasty. Appropriate interpretation and correct prediction of astronomical events were central to imperial charisma: only with the Mandate of Heaven could one rule all under heaven.

While human curiosity about the universe is not born out of political ideology, astronomy and space science in China have developed through the state and for the state. Other countries have had different approaches historically, but since the end of World War II, the main driver of space exploration has been not as much scientific curiosity as state power. Countries have pursued bigger rockets, more satellites, and missions into deeper space for both dual-use technologies and national prestige. Not unlike Chinese emperors justifying the throne with celestial phenomena, governments from the former Soviet Union to the U.S. and China have connected their prowess in space with the superiority of their political systems.

When Gil Scott-Heron sang “Whitey on the Moon” during the Apollo missions, the artist was anchoring the U.S. space program in they country’s tortured history of imperialism and racial inequality, questioning who benefitted and who bore the cost. News of the Chinese lunar mission broke in the first week of 2019, days after President Xi Jinping gave a major address on “reunification” with Taiwan, and while the Chinese government continues militarization of the South China Sea and high-tech ethnic cleansing in the northwestern region of Xinjiang. China’s history of colonial expansion is written into its map of today, and is reflected in its policies of external aggression and internal oppression. When space missions are tools of geopolitics, with the planting of an American flag or the landing of a Chinese rover, the moon becomes not just a destination of scientific discovery, but also a territory for imperial conquest.

My family came from Jingzhou, the ancient capital of Chu. From the Yangtze, my ancestors gazed at the same nightly skies as the Egyptians from the port of Alexandria and the Mayans along the Gulf of Mexico. Empires rose and fell in blinks of time in our shared cosmological history. It is easy to see space programs through the lens of great power competition, but the more fundamental question is whether science and technology should be claimed by individual states or developed for our common humanity.

May human borders never extend beyond the edge of the Earth. In the final frontier, we are all passengers on the same ship.

I remember discussing The Dark Side of the Moon with the controversial journalist Liu Binyan in the summer of 1986. Linda Jaivin, the journalist and my then wife, and I had organized a screening of the music-video cum-movie “The Wall” by Pink Floyd for Binyan at a friend’s Beijing apartment.

And if the cloud bursts, thunder in your ear
You shout and no one seems to hear
And if the band you’re in starts playing different tunes
I’ll see you on the dark side of the moon.

I told Liu that the 1973 album The Dark Side of the Moon, from which these lyrics are taken, had a profound impact on me. We then joked about the moon landing and conspiracy theories. On July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 had landed in the Sea of Tranquility; Binyan said it was only three months after the Ninth Communist Party Congress in Beijing had celebrated the complete victory of the Cultural Revolution. So when news filtered through about the Americans in space, it was dismissed as nothing more than an imperialist sham.

In Mao’s day, one of the worst accusations against Chinese with pro-Western sympathies was: “They even think the moon looks more round in American skies.” Cultural Revolution technophobia was summed up in the slogan: “You may send satellites into the Heavens, but the cost will be the Red Flag falling to earth.”

Behind the scenes, however, Mao lavished support on space. As scientists worked on nuclear weapons, they also honed technology that now makes China a major extraterrestrial player. When reporting on the latest feats in space, state media still quote Mao’s 1965 poem:

We can clasp the Moon in Ninth Heaven
And seize Turtles deep down in the Five Seas:
We’ll return amid triumphant song and laughter.
Nothing is hard in this world
If you dare to scale the heights.

As we watched “The Wall,” the equally controversial astrophysicist Fang Lizhi was warning about boastful technocrats. “Now, here is a proposition,” Fang wrote:

namely that science is invariably beneficial to society. This is not necessarily the case. Science itself and the effects of science are two different concepts. If the application of science and technology is not balanced by progress in social institutions, the results might be quite different from what we would hope. To say that in the future there will be a scientific society, a scientific culture, or a scientific civilization seems to paint an incomplete picture, because all civilizations are ultimately human.” (Translation by Christopher Buckley.)

In “The Wall,” Pink Floyd issued their own words of warning:

We don’t need no thought control. . .
Teachers leave them kids alone
Hey, teachers, leave them kids alone. . .
All in all you’re just another brick in the wall.

It’s over 30 years since Binyan, Linda, and I mulled over this grim message in Beijing. Today, the People’s Republic might celebrate a future in space, but back on terra firma it remains depressingly mired in a world of Maoist dreams.

One does not have to search hard for commentary that suggests China’s space activities must have major military consequences. This trope is sometimes justifiable—in discussions of China’s pursuit of anti-satellite capabilities, for example. But other times even innocuous scientific endeavors, such as the current moon mission, are distorted by the lens of geopolitical competition and militaristic paranoia.

A recent Wall Street Journal article cites a U.S.-based expert on China’s space program, who states that America and China are now in a race to determine “who will be in a position to obtain the vast resources in space, secure the routes of trade and write the rules of space commerce.” Meanwhile, the chief designer of China’s Chang’e lunar missions, Ye Peijian, has told government officials (and then repeated to state media) that “the moon is like the Diaoyu Islands and Mars is like Scarborough Shoal . . . if others occupy them [first] we won’t be able to go there.”

Such comments rightly raise eyebrows. Yet, as Ye admits, this analogy was just part of his own plea for government funding—not a direction to him from China’s leaders. Moreover, a little reflection suggests both statements above are wildly unrealistic. The 38 million-square-kilometer moon is quite unlike the 7-square-kilometer Diaoyu Islands. It and Mars cannot feasibly be appropriated, and lack anything like “routes of trade” that can be “secured.” Specific resource sites, such as water-ice deposits at the lunar poles (where China is now contemplating a lunar base), could conceivably be “claimed,” but exclusive claims would be indefensible, would produce miniscule benefits in any meaningful timeframe, and their illegality would generate intense opposition here on Earth.

Unfortunately, neither the United States nor China have signed the 1979 “Moon Agreement,” which includes a commitment that all lunar resources, like those of Earth’s deep seabed, are part of the “common heritage of mankind.” However, both have foresworn national appropriation of extraterrestrial territory and weaponization of space, under the 1967 “Outer Space Treaty.” Nonetheless, such agreements are fragile, and excessive mutual paranoia may suffice to seal their fate. When Donald Trump tells U.S. astronauts about the “tremendous military application in space,” or when Chinese astronauts give military-style salutes while pledging to “remember Chairman Xi’s instructions,” they feel all the more tenuous.

China is indeed pushing at many different frontiers—in outer space, in the Arctic, in cyberspace, and of course in the South China Sea. But it is not doing so in one uniform manner. Its approach to space somewhat resembles its approach to the Arctic, emphasizing that its interests align with a commitment to peaceful, cooperative, and multilateral development, rather than expanding national sovereignty. For Western states to engage cooperatively with China on some of these areas may help forestall their transformation into arenas of competition and military escalation. The pathway to the moon is not as vulnerable as the Strait of Malacca, nor need it be treated as such. Selenopolitics need not be as fraught with potential disaster as geopolitics.