How China learned to love the bomb

  • Themes: China

The Chinese Communist Party sees growing political value in its nuclear status: any prospect of nuclear reduction, let alone disarmament, has become bleaker than ever before.

China established the Lop Nur Nuclear Test Base on 16 October 1959 with Soviet assistance in selection of the site, with its headquarters at Malan, about 125 km (78 mi) northwest of Qinggir. The first Chinese nuclear bomb test, codenamed '596', was tested at Lop Nur in 1964.
China established the Lop Nur Nuclear Test Base on 16 October 1959 with Soviet assistance in selection of the site, with its headquarters at Malan, about 125 km (78 mi) northwest of Qinggir. The first Chinese nuclear bomb test, codenamed '596', was tested at Lop Nur in 1964. Credit: CPA Media Pte Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

China is today the world’s third largest nuclear weapons state, with an estimated 350 nuclear warheads. China is also no newcomer to global nuclear politics, having first tested an atom bomb in October 1964. Yet only in the last two decades has the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) begun to seriously acknowledge its nuclear past. This stands in contrast to other nuclear weapons states where the bomb has long been commemorated. In the United States, books abound on well-known nuclear scientists such as  Oppenheimer, or strategists from the RAND, with numerous references to the bomb in popular culture, including Hollywood, such as Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb and the forthcoming Christopher Nolan movie, Oppenheimer. More recently, in July 2022, a US government medal was created to memorialise a darker and dangerous side of a nation’s nuclear past: the service and sacrifice of ‘Atomic Veterans’. At personal cost, Atomic Veterans were exposed to radiation or were involved in the clean-up of radioactive material after nuclear testing in the US atomic and nuclear weapons programs. In Russia, the approach has been slightly different. Here, a deep relationship exists between the bomb and the Russian Orthodox Church, to the extent this is understood as a ‘nuclear priesthood’. Yet in China nuclear commemoration has been selective and tentative, focusing on a distinct set of national scientists and their achievements as part of the historic liang dan, yi xing 两弹一星 (Two Bombs, One Satellite) programme launched in 1959.

Lack of nuclear commemoration notwithstanding, Chinese leaders have not ignored the bomb. Almost all CCP leaders have, at one point or another, credited the bomb with elevating China’s status worldwide. This political function of the bomb was particularly helpful to Beijing before China joined the United Nations and assumed a permanent seat on the Security Council in 1971. Former CCP leader Deng Xiaoping, for instance, stated in 1988 that: ‘if China had not developed the atomic bomb and the hydrogen bomb…China would not have been called an influential country or able to enjoy the international status that it does nowadays. The atomic bomb and the hydrogen bomb demonstrate a nation’s capability and are also a symbol of the flourishing and prosperity of a nation and its country’. Much earlier, in 1958, the first CCP leader, Mao Zedong famously declared that without nuclear weapons ‘others don’t think what we say carries weight’. Yet attributing status to nuclear weapons is not the same as commemorating these weapons in national cultures and identities. Essentially, unlike the attribution of status, nuclear commemoration is a deliberate, institutionalised practice, typically driven by the ruling elite of a state. For it to succeed, it typically requires buy-in and promotion by influential cultural and commercial institutions of the state, be these national museums or film industries like Hollywood in the United States; historical institutions such as the Royal Family in the UK, or religious institutions like the Orthodox Church in Russia or the Church of England in the UK. In the UK example, national institutions have worked together: in May 2019, a commemorative service was held at Westminster Abbey — with members of the British Royal Family in attendance — to honour the development of British nuclear weapons.

In China, the CCP determines the who, what and when of its national nuclear past worthy of commemoration. Similarly, state media (as well as national museums, TV and film industries) have become important institutions in promoting that form of commemoration. Yet absent ad-hoc celebrations of certain tests, or the odd memorial service for Chinese nuclear scientists who passed away in the mid-1990s, the Party opted not to celebrate its nuclear past for a long time. In 1999, this changed. That year, a Two Bombs, One Satellite Achievement Medal was created by the Central Committee of the Communist Party, the State Council and the Central Military Commission under then CCP leader Jiang Zemin.  The medal represents a turning-point of sorts and would commemorate three major scientific achievements as part of the Two Bombs, One Satellite programme. The first scientific achievement of this programme was China’s successful testing of an atomic bomb on 16 October 1964, an act that allowed China to officially enter the world’s rhetorical ‘nuclear club’. The second achievement was the testing of a hydrogen bomb in record time, on 17 June 1967. The third achievement related to the launch of an artificial satellite on 24 April 1970. Soon after the launch of the medal, a commemorative editorial in China’s main newspaper, the Renmin Ribao was published.

Commemoration of this programme took off in the 2000s, with a flurry of Chinese language books and articles published on the Two Bombs, One Satellite programme,  including an official publication, Two Bombs and One Satellite: Milestone of the Republic published in 2001 as well as academic books like the Marshals of the Nuclear Bomb, Missile and Satellite Project published by Tsinghua University in 2001, or The Project of “Two Bombs, One Satellite”:  A Model of Big Science (published by Shandong Jiaoyu Press in 2004). Then, in 2009, the Research Association of the Liang Dan Yi Xing History was founded resulting in a journal and official website to collect documents and oral histories. As historian Lei Liu points out, this represents a unique living resource on China’s nuclear history. Shortly afterwards, in 2015, the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) built a museum to support the Two Bombs, One Satellite project. The museum is housed at the site of the CAS’s former rocket test base, founded in 1958. According to Cao Xiaoye, vice secretary-general of CAS, the museum identifies more than 17,000 researchers, some for the first time, for their roles in the programme. Chinese articles on the museum describe the project as crucial to not just China’s scientific and defence capabilities, but to China’s overall strength. Xi Jinping has also allocated major funding since the mid-2010s to develop a nation-wide oral history database of strategic scientists, labelled the ‘Old Scientist Programme’. This programme is intended to result in a database to preserve the record of these key weapons scientists. It is a competitive initiative that involves Chinese universities bidding for generous state funding to research scientists deemed of ‘strategic’ value.

What the above efforts show is that the Two Bombs, One Satellite programme firmly remains at the centre of China’s nuclear commemoration, two decades on since the medal was launched in 1999. The longevity of this focal point for Chinese nuclear commemoration isn’t surprising. Above all, the programme tells a thoroughly national (and Party-led) story of self-reliance. Earlier Chinese nuclear history, such as controversial nuclear cooperation with the Soviet Union throughout most of the 1950s, is completely bypassed. Certainly, the significance of this bilateral nuclear cooperation is debated, yet by 1957, both countries had signed the New Defence Technical Accord for aid in technologies such as rockets and aviation. Some Chinese elites, like PLA Marshal Nie Rongzhen, contended that without this Soviet assistance, it would not have been possible for China to make rapid progress in its nuclear endeavours.  Yet there remains scepticism over Soviet intentions. Revisionist Chinese history now suggests the Soviet Union provided nuclear aid to China at a deliberately slow pace to delay and retard the successful development of a nuclear weapons capability. Ultimately, the point here is that unlike the controversial Sino-Soviet nuclear cooperation of the 1950s, the Two Bombs, One Satellite programme is a story of national success, under Party supervision.

There have been opportunities to do more, beyond the Two Bombs, One Satellite programme, yet the Party seems to have resisted this temptation so far. For example, since the late 1990s, several political biographies and academic assessments of Chinese Party elites have been published, each shedding some new light on China’s nuclear past. Of these, former Premier Zhou Enlai stands out for shaping nuclear thinking in the 1960s, and even for safeguarding parts of the Chinese nuclear programme during the tumultuous period of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. A 2008 biography on Zhang Aiping, written by his son, Zhang Sheng, offers even more insight into this influential figure in the Two Bombs, One Satellite programme and beyond. As former defence minister from the Deng era and former deputy director of the powerful National Defense Science and Technology Commission, Zhang championed ideas of retaliation in Chinese nuclear strategy and, at a practical level, the development of the DF-5 Intercontinental Ballistic Missile programme in the 1970s. Without the DF-5 programme, China’s nuclear deterrence would likely have had zero credibility throughout the 1970s-1990s.

Yet, irrespective of these biographies and the academic attention they may generate, the focus of China’s official national nuclear commemoration remains squarely on the scientific achievements of the Two Bombs, One Satellite programme. Why is this so? In the Xi era, the Party sees perhaps even more political value than ever before in this programme since it tells a self-serving story of scientific glory under harsh political, fiscal and technical conditions. This remains relevant to present-day China’s aspirations of becoming a global Space and Cyber power and the technological (as well as broader diplomatic) challenges it faces. As Xi Jinping insightfully declared in April 2018:  ‘In the past we tightened our belts, gritted our teeth, and built the two [atomic and hydrogen] bombs and a satellite…In the next step of tackling technology, we must cast aside illusions and rely on ourselves’. Xi’s analogy is clear: if Chinese scientists could make the bomb happen under such harsh fiscal and diplomatic conditions back in the 1960s, so too can national scientists achieve success today.

Although a selective reading of China’s nuclear past, the Two Bombs, One Satellite programme does lift the lid on an array of strategic scientists, 23 in total, some of whom were not well known. Among the household names are ‘Rocket king’ Qian Xuesen, who passed away in 2009, and for whom a museum was set up in his honour in 2011.  Qian is a colourful figure in China’s nuclear past. His early academic life in the United States during the Red-Scare McCarthy era and the controversial forced return to China is the subject of Iris Chang’s Thread of the Silkworm book published in 1995. Upon his return to China, Qian quickly became pivotal to the development of missiles and rocket technology, but he also became a favoured political figure too, receiving praise as an ‘excellent member of the Communist Party’ and promoted by the Party as a model for Chinese citizens to follow. Another well-known scientist is Zhu Guangya, leader of China’s nuclear industry, described as a ‘scientist with a strategic vision’ who played a major role in China’s (discontinued) neutron bomb programme and military modernization more generally. In 2004, a Science and Technology Thought Symposium was held in his honour in Beijing.

Lesser-known figures include three ‘academic giants’ that remain alive today. These include Wang Xiji, former space technology expert; Sun Jiadong former ballistic missile and artificial satellite technology expert; and Zhou Guangzhao former theoretical physics and particle physicist. Others include ‘nuclear commander’ Cheng Kaijia, who oversaw nuclear testing in the 1960s and Yu Min, known as the father of China’s proudest nuclear achievement (because it tested in record time), the Hydrogen bomb in 1967. Yu’s role in China’s nuclear past remained anonymous for more than 30 years until 1998. In 2015, Yu won an additional honorary certificate given to him by Xi Jinping, the highest award that can be given to a scientist in China, known as the State Supreme Science and Technology Award.

China is today the most powerful nuclear weapons state it has ever been. Decades of Chinese military modernization have led to hundreds of nuclear weapons, across different platforms. As for the future, discoveries of new missile silo fields under construction in 2021 suggest China may have not hundreds, but thousands of nuclear weapons in the years to come. It is in this phase of unprecedented nuclear strength that the Party commemorates its nuclear past more than ever before. Fortunately, perhaps, this commemoration is restricted, based on a simplified reading of Chinese nuclear history, namely a patriotic story of strategic science  around the Two Bombs, One Satellite programme. In the near term, it is unlikely that the Party has much political appetite to go beyond this story: it is ultimately a safe slice of Chinese history for the Party to celebrate. Today, in the Xi era, this programme remains as relevant as ever, speaking to a dominant Party narrative of ideological renewal and scientific achievement, whatever the difficult internal or external circumstances China may face. Yet much is left out and lost in China’s nuclear commemoration. A more critical history of the bomb remains elusive. Worryingly, the focus on science and its relationship to the bomb sanitises its devastating effects. There is no room so far to forefront the social, humanitarian, ecological and environmental costs of China’s nuclear weapons development. More problematically, instrumentalising nuclear commemoration for political purposes is a backward move for China’s wider trademark of nuclear restraint. Beyond simply conferring a sense of status, China’s nuclear weapons development is now serving as an example for other national scientists to follow as Beijing pursues global ambitions in space, and the cybersphere. This is lamentable. The bomb was always a political rather than military device for Party elites, but with commemoration now firmly in place, the political rewards have grown. What this means is that China sees additional political value in its nuclear status, and any prospect of nuclear reduction, let alone disarmament, has become bleaker than ever before.


Nicola Leveringhaus