China’s party conclave signals strong support for Xi’s space agenda

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The consolidation of power by Chinese leader Xi Jinping at China’s 20th Communist Party Congress last month portends a continued, inward-looking focus on science, technology and space.

The twice-a-decade political spectacle in Beijing confirmed that Xi Jinping would, despite decades of precedent, continue his leadership of the ruling Communist Party of China beyond two five-year terms. While this will likely create a succession problem for the country in the future, it also means space will remain a key focus, with an eye on technological innovation and industrial self-reliance.

“We have witnessed major successes on multiple fronts, including human spaceflight, lunar and Martian exploration, deep sea and deep earth probes, supercomputers, satellite navigation, quantum information, nuclear power technology, new energy technology, airliner manufacturing, and biomedicine. China has joined the ranks of the world’s innovators,” read an excerpt from the work report Xi delivered Oct. 16, highlighting major achievements over the last decade.

The report paid greater attention to science and technology than his 19th Party Congress report five years earlier, Brian Hart, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told SpaceNews. “By my count, the 20th Party Congress report mentions science and technology 45 times – up significantly from 17 times in the previous party congress report.”

Hart notes an all-new section on science and education focuses heavily on cultivating talent to drive innovation-led growth, and a related strong focus on self-reliance.

“The Biden administration’s recent decision to put in place sweeping restrictions on exports of semiconductor technology to China was just the latest sign for Beijing that it is vulnerable to external pressure in key areas,” says Hart.

The U.S. chip ban will likely affect China’s space industry. Xi, 69, called for improving “economic, major infrastructure, financial, cyber, data, biological, resource, nuclear, space, and maritime security.”

The impacts of sanctions on Russia’s space industry following its invasion of Ukraine may also be seen by Beijing as a lesson on the perils of not being self-sufficient in space.

Wu Yansheng, chairman of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp. (CASC), the country’s main space contractor, and a delegate to the 20th Party Congress, outlined major future objectives which chimed with the Work Report.

Many have been previously stated, but being presented together at China’s most significant political event—with some beyond the scope of the current national Five-year Plan—indicates significant long-term support and commitment to major space projects.

Wu told news media Oct. 22 at the closing ceremony of the Congress that the development of the giant state-owned enterprise will include upgrading China’s existing rocket fleet, including building new models with greater launch capacity, to be a major priority.

New launchers, he says, will advance crucial projects, including crewed missions to the moon—which China could be capable of before 2030, according to earlier reporting—and establishing the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS), China’s version of the Artemis program. Major exploration goals include a Mars sample-return mission and exploring asteroids.

Fostering innovation in scientific and technological frontiers to inject new momentum in China’s space sector was also stressed as a key priority, echoing themes in the Work Report. To this end, Wu noted that CASC established a space innovation research institute in Beijing in July, which will work to accelerate cutting-edge technology development, focusing on areas including artificial intelligence, advanced materials and propulsion.

The opening of the institute included a statement reiterating a previously stated national goal of building a solid foundation for making China a major aerospace power and supporting the construction of a world-class military.

The centrality of space to national plans was stated earlier this year. The passage “To explore the vast cosmos, develop the space industry and build China into a space power is our eternal dream” opens China’s latest space White Paper, released in January, and was attributed to Xi Jinping. Shortly after, it is noted that the “space industry is a critical element of the overall national strategy.” Xi’s extended spell as leader now reinforces this.

This article originally appeared in the November 2022 issue of SpaceNews magazine.