After shooting down one of its weather satellites Jan. 11, the Chinese government maintained a baffling silence until Jan. 23 when it confirmed foreign reports of the event. Since then, government leaders in Beijing have said little, but the same cannot be said for some of China’s 1.3 billion people, who are expressing patriotic pride and defending their military’s technological achievement.
News of the anti-satellite (ASAT) test trickled into the Chinese mainland hours after the first official U.S. reports appeared Jan. 18. Shortly thereafter, commentary emerged on major Chinese internet forums, a proxy barometer of public opinion. Although some Chinese initially voiced doubts about the authenticity of the news, the reaction was generally positive. A typical opinion appearing on the military forum bbs.military.china.com stated, “[The test] is of great political significance to our country…and a milestone in our country’s scientific advancement. Our army can no longer be considered backwards.”
In a Jan. 26 interview with Arms Control Today, Professor Shi Yinhong, an international relations expert at the Beijing-based People’s University, stated that “100% of internet public opinion…enthusiastically applauds this development.” He cautioned, however, that internet views might not be an entirely accurate reflection of Chinese sentiment, noting that those who harbor reservations about the test may fear expressing their opposition openly.
Shi also noted that most Chinese may not be fully aware of the event, owing to sparse Chinese media coverage of the satellite destruction. Still, he concluded, “for those who do know, I suppose that the overwhelming majority is in favor of this development of space military capabilities.”
While Western media have been busy scrutinizing China’s test and growing ASAT capabilities, China’s state-run media has spotlighted the space capabilities and plans of other countries, particularly the United States. As a result, many Chinese may not realize the seeming contradiction between China’s official position in support of limits on space weapons and its recent ASAT test. In the last few weeks, the Chinese government has continued to insist that it wants to prevent the “weaponization” of space.
China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency published a Jan. 28 article, “United States Issues New Space Policy: An Inventory of American Anti-Satellite Warfare Capabilities.” Relying primarily on U.S. nongovernmental analysis, the article outlines U.S. missile defense capabilities and concludes that Washington is determined to deploy space-based weapons. Other Chinese news outlets have run variations of this piece.
At the same time, some Chinese are concerned that the test could bolster some claims in Washington and elsewhere that China is a growing military competitor. A student at the People’s University wrote in an online academic forum that the test will only “add fuel to the ‘China Threat’ argument,” supporting those “Western conservative politicians who want to restrain China even if she is rising peacefully.”
The Chinese military has dismissed such claims. In a Feb. 2 article in the Global Times, a weekly Chinese Communist Party-run newspaper, Major General Zhang Zhaozhong noted that “if a strong military indicates a large threat,” then by that logic “ China is not the country that poses the biggest threat to the world.”