Next year China will open a new space port on a tropical island in the South China Sea. In addition to supporting a new generation of wider-bodied space launch vehicles that will expand China’s capability to carry larger and heavier spacecraft into Earth orbit and beyond, the opening of the new launch facility on Hainan Island marks a noteworthy shift in the culture of the Chinese space community.
A New Era in China’s Space Program
Histories of the Chinese space program speak in reverent terms about the sacrifices of generations of Chinese space scientists and engineers who suffered the deprivations of living and working in facilities built in the remote and inhospitable dessert of western China. Guarded by the military, cloaked in secrecy and imbued with an almost religious sense of political importance, China’s existing space ports were constructed during a more defensive era when outer space was perceived as the ultimate high ground of the old Cold War.
While some observers may continue to see space as an arena for great power competition, many Chinese space professionals hope to expand international cooperation and collaboration. Diverse civil, scientific and commercial space aspirations occupy the imaginations of China’s young and rapidly growing space community. Military competition remains important, but it may no longer be paramount. Plans for the new space port in Hainan embody this change.
Local news reports indicate that the State Council, the General Armaments Department (GAD) of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the Central Military Commission approved the proposal for the new launch facility in 2006. Military supervision of China’s civilian space program dates to the late 1960s, when the Chinese Academy of Sciences appealed to the central government to place its satellite and carrier rocket programs under military administration to protect them from the political persecution of leftist radicals during the Cultural Revolution. The military may still administer the day-to-day operations of China’s launch facilities, but instead of fending off Red Guards they will be welcoming middle class Chinese tourists.
A More Hospitable Environment for China’s Space Professionals
The island occasionally referred to as China’s Hawaii is well-suited for a space port. The lower latitude offers advantages that higher latitudes lack, and in the event something goes wrong, a failed launch over open water is far less likely to result in the kind of damages China can suffer from launch failures over populated areas. The facility is being built on the relatively undeveloped northeastern corner of the island in the municipality of Wenchang. But instead of preserving or reinforcing the launch site’s relative isolation, the city planners are working hard to integrate the space port into the island’s tourist infrastructure.
The space port will be surrounded by 37 different development projects including a space-related theme park and a park highlighting the island’s history and culture. Luxury housing, a golf course, a coconut grove and an “intellectual’s village” are some of the other attractions planned to draw upscale Chinese tourists to the area. Roads and other supporting infrastructure are being designed to accommodate two populations; the space professionals who will be living and working at what appears to be China’s equivalent of the Kennedy Space Center, and affluent Chinese looking to take in a space launch while enjoying a vacation at the beach.
The contrast with the “revolutionary heroes” of Chinese space history; men and women who suffered the depravations of life in the remote interior, away from family and friends, working in secret, could not be sharper.
Space and Cultural Change in China
The implications for the future of Chinese space culture are less clear but potentially very important.
In the late 1980s a group of Chinese intellectuals published a popular and controversial television series contrasting the supposedly “yellow” culture of traditional Chinese civilization with the supposedly “blue” culture of the Western nations who surpassed and challenged it. They argued that Chinese traditional culture was tied to the land, inward looking and focused on the past. They believed if China was to survive in the modern world it needed a new culture, like the West’s, that was supposedly tied to the sea, outward looking and focused on the future. It was a liberal call for another Chinese cultural revolution, announced in stark terms in the opening episode:
“Over the last several thousand years the Yellow River civilization has been many times the target of foreign attacks that have sought to subjugate it, yet it has never fallen. We have deeply admired this powerful capacity of cultural assimilation. But today at the end of the twentieth century, although the foreign attacks are no longer accompanied by cannons and cruel oppression, our ancient civilization can withstand them no longer. It is already moribund. It needs new cultural forces to reinvigorate it. Ancestors of the dragon, what the Yellow River could give us, it long ago gave to our forefathers. The Yellow River cannot again bring forth the civilization that our forefathers created. What we must create is an entirely new civilization. It will not stream from the Yellow River; it clogs our arteries. It needs a great flood to wash it away.”
The Chinese government’s decision to use lethal military force and massive arrests to break the wave of demonstrations that swept across China a year after the series aired put an end to public conversations about dramatic changes in Chinese political life. But the cultural transformation the authors imagined may be happening anyway, though evolution rather than revolution.
China’s space community is young and many of its leaders were either educated abroad or have extensive international experience. There is a significant population of cosmopolitan, multilingual scientists and engineers among them who, like their counterparts all over the world, are more interested in the problems of the present and the promises of tomorrow than the psychological burdens of China’s troubled history. The torch has been passed, to a new generation of Chinese, born in an era of rapidly rising prosperity, unaffected by war, at peace with the rest of the world and not as predisposed as their predecessors to worry that the progress China has made is either transitory or superficial.
In many ways contemporary Chinese space culture is a reflection of U.S. space culture in the Kennedy era, flush with funding, confident, ambitious and interested in making meaningful contributions not only to the nation, but to the rest of the world, particularly the international space community. Hopefully, at some point, the U.S. government will set aside its antiquated perceptions of the Chinese space program, lift the ban on contact with this new generation of Chinese space professionals, and give them a well-deserved chance to try.