China’s nuclear weapons are a source of unending controversy in the United States, in part because the debate is littered with misinformation. The problem is so pervasive that even seasoned researchers have trouble distinguishing fact from fiction.
An outstanding investigative journalist and the author of a well-documented book on the troubled history of the U.S. nuclear weapons program mistook fiction for fact when commenting on the history of China’s nuclear program in a November 2014 editorial, writing:
“During the Cultural Revolution in China, members of the red guards launched a missile with a nuclear warhead on a flight path over populated areas – an extremely risky and perhaps unauthorised launch.”
China did conduct this risky test on 27 October 1966. But the nuclear-armed missile was not launched by red guards. It was authorized by Chairman Mao and Premier Zhou Enlai, supervised by General Nie Rongzhen—the military officer in charge of China’s nuclear weapons program— and certified as technologically feasible by Qian Xuesen, the founding director of the U.S. Joint Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) who returned to China from the U.S. after being accused of espionage during the McCarthy era.
The journalist was misled by questionable information in a recently published case study of China’s nuclear command and control system. The study claims the radical politics of the Cultural Revolution was the decisive factor in a red guard inspired push by the newly-formed Second Artillery—China’s missile force—to conduct the October 1966 test.
But that claim is wrong, according to publicly available Chinese histories..
Instead, preparations to conduct the test began after a meeting of the Central Military Commission at its headquarters in the Western Hills of Beijing in early 1966. During the meeting all of the key technical institutions involved in China’s nuclear and missile programs presented information on the feasibility of conducting a successful test of a nuclear warhead mated to a modified version of China’s DF-2 missile. The decision to go forward with the test was taken in a meeting chaired by Premier Zhou Enlai and held in the Xinjiang Room of the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on 11 March 1966, five months before the Cultural Revolution started.
Poor Use of Sources
The sole reference the case study associates with the sensational claim that Chinese red guards conducted an unauthorized test of a nuclear-armed Chinese missile is a 1985 article published in the Beijing Review. But in fact, the article—an excerpt from General Nie Rongzhen’s autobiography—says exactly the opposite.
Nie, whose leadership of the nuclear weapons program was challenged by the radicals in the labs, indicates there was a careful and deliberate process leading to Mao and Zhou’s authorization to conduct the test. In addition to this article, numerous Chinese language histories of the nuclear program tell the same story. The case study does not reference any of them in support of the claim about the effect of radical Chinese politics on Chinese views of nuclear weapons. It is an oversight that is difficult to understand, especially since these histories are well known and generally accepted as credible both inside and outside of China.
The case study claims the radicals wanted to “accelerate the nuclear weapons program.” However, Chinese historical accounts indicate the leadership’s primary concern was that the radicals would delay it.
This is especially true in the case of the October 1966 test. The histories show that the outbreak of Cultural Revolution political activities within the various departments working on the nuclear program started just as preparations to conduct the test were entering their final phase. The case study mentions the radical activity in Qinghai, and suggests that ideological debates related to the pace of the nuclear weapons program led to unauthorized efforts to accelerate a test that was already imminent. But the Chinese histories tell a very different story. They indicate the officials in charge of China’s nuclear program were concerned that red guards might commandeer the train scheduled to carry the nuclear warheads from Qinghai to the test site, and in doing so delay the scheduled test indefinitely. Red Guards had begun commandeering trains all over China and the leadership of the facility in Qinghai where the warheads were stored called Premier Zhou Enlai to implore him to take efforts to prevent the red guards from taking the Qinghai train.
General Nie was concerned that other logistical problems associated with the politics of the Cultural Revolution might delay not only the October 1966 test but the upcoming test of the hydrogen bomb. Nie also contacted Premier Zhou Enlai to obtain an order preventing various types of red guard activities within the nuclear complex, including putting up big character posters, conducting struggle sessions and engaging in mass public protests against supposed counterrevolutionaries. The emphasis throughout was on preserving order and discipline within the labs and the military so that Cultural Revolution activities would not disrupt the nuclear weapons program.
So not only does the case study fail to provide any documentation to support the claim that the red guards tried to accelerate the nuclear program by conducting an unauthorized test, the available sources, when examined, show that the Chinese political leadership, and the leadership of the nuclear weapons program, were forced to take extraordinary measures to prevent the red guards from derailing it.
Putting the Chinese People at Risk
The most recent historical account of China’s nuclear weapons program is a 2011 work called “Fate of the Nation: The Secret Course of China’s Liang Dan Yi Xing.” Authors Tao Chun and Chen Huaiguo offer their version of the standard Chinese explanation behind the Communist Party leadership’s decision to conduct a risky test of a nuclear-armed missile in October of 1966:
After China’s first nuclear weapons test, the United States tightened its complete blackmail and strategic encirclement against China, enlarging the scale of the Vietnam War, and organizing the so-called crescent moon of military bases encircling the eastern Pacific coast like a sickle hanging over China’s head. At the same time the Americans intoxicatedly believed that Sino-Soviet relations were changing and that the situation demanded the Soviets carry out a crushing preemptive nuclear attack while China still had not completely mastered the practical ability to use nuclear weapons.
In truth the Soviet threat to China was equally great. In 1963, after China and the Soviet Union completely broke relations, the Soviets moved their armies into Mongolia and were on the border of Inner Mongolia on a line to Beijing just over 500 kilometers away, with strategic nuclear forces deployed in Central Mongolia and along the Chinese-Soviet border to the east, posing a serious threat to China.
After China’s first nuclear weapons test, the West thought it was just a nuclear demonstration, still not a weapon, and not something to make a fuss about. This led Chinese leaders to feel that in the past they didn’t have hard enough stuff and they couldn’t straighten their spine, and now with nuclear bombs they still could not take a breath. Because if all you have is a nuclear bomb, that won’t do, it still isn’t a weapon, it does not have eyes, have long legs, know how to run— so all you can do is blow up yourself with it, no? Therefore, whether or not we could quickly possess a useable nuclear weapon became a question of life or death.
On 14 May 1965 a Hong 6 aircraft dropped a nuclear weapon at the nuclear test site and this test of an airborne nuclear weapon was a success, demonstrating once and for all that China possessed a nuclear weapon that could be used in a war. However, all of the aircraft China could use were backward, and any U.S. or Soviet fighter could easily intercept them. Considering China’s practical conditions at the time, relying on the quantity or quality of the aircraft available to China for a nuclear deterrent was naturally a non-starter. This is also to say developing a nuclear-armed missile was a road China must walk.
The Americans believed China could not master nuclear missile technology in a short period of time. At the time U.S. Secretary of Defense McNamara predicted it would be five years before China would have a nuclear-armed missile. Why did he say that? Because it took the United States twelve years from their first nuclear test to launch a nuclear-armed missile, and about the same amount of time for the Soviet Union, so for China to use ten years to develop the same seemed normal. In five years they certainly could not. This, fundamentally, was the U.S. prediction.
Considering all this, with research on the hydrogen bomb proceeding at the same time, the test of a missile armed with a nuclear weapon made it on to the agenda of the Specialized Committee…
The following clip from a 1999 film produced by the August 1st Movie Production Studio of the People’s Liberation Army offers the same basic story of the events leading up to the test.
It is misleading to downplay the sense of urgency behind the Chinese leadership’s decision to conduct the October 1966 test with claims about the ideological influences of the Cultural Revolution. Portraying the decision to conduct the test as the intemperate push of radicals obscures the motivations driving the Chinese leadership’s decision to put their own population at risk. The test was conducted over populated areas because there were no other viable options available to the Chinese leadership at that time. They could not, as the United States did, conduct such a test over the open waters of the Pacific Ocean. Zhou Enlai, at the end of the 11 March meeting that authorized the October 1966 test, admitted that if the worst happened it would be a crime against the Chinese people. But he also realized, along with everyone else in attendance, that despite all their best efforts there was a real risk of catastrophic failure. As authors Tao and Chen relate, “The meeting ended. There was no clapping, and the attendees’ faces were full of imposition as they quietly left the meeting place.”
These people knew they were creating a risk of an accidental nuclear explosion over populated areas of their own country. That seems more deserving of our concern and consideration today, as the United States negotiates with China on the possibility of nuclear reductions, than imagining the October 1966 test was the reckless act of a bunch of unauthorized Chinese radicals.
The Need for More Careful U.S. Scholarship on China’s Nuclear Program
Of course, all of the histories published in China are subject to question. The archived original sources on which they are based are not open to scrutiny, even to trusted researchers currently working in China’s nuclear weapons labs. State-authorized histories of China nuclear weapons program are not objective chronicles of events conducted by dispassionate academics. There are, most likely, quite a few details about the history of China’s nuclear weapons program that will not be known until the Chinese government decides to open its archives to independent scholars.
Nevertheless, in the meantime, U.S. analysts who make claims to expertise about that history are obliged to consult everything that is available and to present what they find as accurately and honestly as possible. Sensational claims in particular require careful vetting and full documentation. Without it, scholars who are less familiar with that history and unable to read Chinese language sources are easily led astray. More importantly, U.S. decision-makers who rely upon the expertise of U.S. analysts inside and outside of government need to know the information about China’s nuclear weapons program those analysts produce is credible.