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China's final frontier

The Chinese are latecomers to space, and desperate to catch up. Two years after shooting down a sate

Dongfan Chung had lived in Orange County, California, for 45 years. The 72-year-old, known as Greg to his friends, led a quiet life with his artist wife and son. Quiet, that is, until dawn on 11 February 2008, when the FBI came to his home to arrest him on eight counts of espionage.

Chung, who had worked for Rockwell International and then Boeing - both companies involved in operating the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station for Nasa - is accused of sending confidential information on the US space programme to China over a 30-year period. His trial begins on 6 May. If convicted, he could face spending the rest of his life in jail.

What could have made him do it? The indictment issued by the District Court of California includes extracts from a letter Chung wrote in 1979 to a professor at the Harbin Institute of Technology in China: "I don't know what I can do for the country. Having been a Chinese compatriot for over 30 years and being proud of the achievements by the people's efforts for the motherland, I am regretful for not contributing anything . . . I would like to make an effort to contribute to the Four Modernisations of China."

A list found in Chung's possession showed the extent of the knowledge to which he had access; it included manuals on aircraft and space shuttle design as well as military specifications. It seems he would simply take documents out of the office, hide them at his home, and then travel to China to present the information, sometimes using his wife as a foil; he pretended on one occasion that they were going there at the invitation of a Chinese art institute. His hosts were grateful. Gu Weihao, an official of the ministry of aviation in Beijing, signed off a letter to Chung saying: "It is your honour and China's fortune that you are able to realise your wish of dedicating yourself to the service of your country." Chung was playing his patriotic part in the construction of the new China, ensuring the motherland gained that defining accessory of a great power: a space programme.

The country's space story begins, as the China National Space Administration white paper puts it, "50 splendid years" ago under Chairman Mao with the development of a ballistic missile programme. Over the next generation, space and nuclear research continued and expanded. By 2003, China became the third country, after the United States and Russia, to launch a manned mission into space; the first spacewalk by a Chinese astronaut took place last September. Footage of the event shows Zhai Zhigang waving a Chinese flag as he drifts against the black sky, attached by an umbilical cord to the Shenzhou VII spacecraft. The red flag catches the sunlight reflecting off the earth. Zhai's voice crackles: "My country, please have faith in me. I and my team will finish this mission."

Zhai became a national hero. He had shown the world how quickly China was progressing. In a speech shortly afterwards, the then Nasa administrator, Michael Griffin, acknowledged the achievement. "I personally believe China will be back on the moon before we are," he said. "I think that when that happens Americans will not like it. But they will just have to not like it."

Forty years on from Neil Armstrong's famed first steps, moon landings still capture the imagination. They give countries geopolitical status, prized membership of an elite club. But China's lunar aspirations tell only half the story. All space research develops technology that can have civil or military uses - satellites, for example, can monitor weather patterns or troop movements. The lack of distinction between the two in China causes the US "quite a bit of concern", according to Jing-dong Yuan, director of the East Asia Non-proliferation Programme at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. There is, he says, "no organisational separation between the civilian and military" parts of the Chinese space programme. Other space-faring nations, such as the US or India, make the division institutionally clear, but in China the whole show is run by the People's Liberation Army. As Yuan says: "The Chinese military understands that modern warfare depends on how you use space."

No wonder the case of Greg Chung prompted a strong reaction. Ken Wainstein, then assistant attorney general for US national security, warned of "the threat posed by the relentless efforts of foreign intelligence services to penetrate our security systems and steal our most sensitive military technology and information". It was, he said, "a threat to our national security and to our economic position in the world". Says Alan Paller, a cyber security expert who advises the US government: "We're talking about the equivalent of the following thing happening at every major defence organisation: a guy is walking into the building, copying files and taking them away. They're not taking 25 files, or 50 files, they're taking millions of files."

In a report to Congress last November, the United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission claimed that there are about 250 organised hacker groups tolerated and possibly encouraged by the Chinese government. In one year, China was said to have downloaded between 10 and 20 terabytes of data from US government and contractor websites (roughly the equivalent of all the text in the British Library). So what is Beijing doing with it all? Catching up, for one thing. As Yuan says, the Chinese were “latecomers” to space and they want to avoid reinventing the wheel. But the apparent scale of the espionage campaign is making the Americans anxious. Chris Shank, until recently director of strategic communications at Nasa, drops his voice when asked about its effect: “It’s deeply disconcerting . . . They know that we know what is going on and they know it’s hurt relations.”

Beijing dismisses the commission's report as "unworthy of rebuttal". At the time of its release, the foreign ministry spokesman, Qin Gang, was defiant. "The commission always sees China through distorted colour spectacles, and intentionally creates obstacles for China-US co-operation through smearing China deliberately and misleading the general public," he said. The official line is that China "is unflinching in taking the road of peaceful development, and always maintains that outer space is the common wealth of mankind".

Alan Paller, for one, doesn't buy it. He has no qualms about saying that China and the US are in an "arms race", pure and simple. Observers in Washington point to the first Gulf War as the moment when the Chinese realised that developing sophisticated technology in space was synonymous with being a major military power. They watched how the Americans used satellite systems for all aspects of warfare - navigation, communications, imagery and early missile attack warnings - and realised that if they were to have any hope of matching US military weight they would need to shape up in space. The Chinese were also being realistic. They knew that closing the gap with the US in conventional military force was impossible. But US dependence on space systems was what Yuan calls their "soft rib". If the Chinese could develop the capability to threaten the US 500 miles above the earth, it wouldn't matter how many tanks they had.

That capability was made dramatically apparent when, in January 2007, a "kinetic kill vehicle" was propelled into space from a base in the remote Sichuan Province. Travelling at 18,000 miles an hour, it successfully hit its target, a Chinese weather satellite. It took almost two weeks for the Chinese to confirm they had done it, despite the international outcry over the "weaponising" of space. "There's no need to feel threatened about this," said their foreign ministry spokesman at the time. To anyone outside the space business, China blowing up one of its own weather satellites doesn't seem like such a big deal. But a China expert and analyst for US defence organisations, Dean Cheng, says that "it made pretty much everyone think differently".

It was, if you like, another Sputnik moment. When the Soviets launched the first artificial satellite into orbit in 1957, they demonstrated an ability that worried the US. Sputnik showed that the Soviets could use ballistic missiles to carry nuclear weapons from Europe to the US. The Chinese anti-satellite test was, similarly, a muscle-flex. For a start, it hadn't been done since the last US exercise in 1985. More importantly, it proved that if the Chinese wanted, they could take out satellites at will. It was, according to Scott Pace, former associate administrator at Nasa and now director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, a "surprisingly dirty" move. Dirty in all senses: a cloud of debris from the collision now stretches hazardously for hundreds of miles in space.

Pace, Shank and many other American ­Establishment observers studiously avoid talking of a new space race. So do the Chinese. After the anti-satellite test, they insisted that their intentions were innocent: “Neither has China participated, nor will it participate in an arms race in outer space in any form.” In any case, according to Pace, China is years behind – “roughly in the mid- to late-Sixties period” – in the technology it is creating. He refers to the Chinese space programme, and that of the other emerging giant, India, with a kind of avuncular benevolence. The United States “would be happy to see them on the moon”, he says, yet still he is wary. “There are aspects that look benign, and there are aspects that look worrisome . . . There’s not a lot of insight into who everyone is and how decisions are made.”

This seems to be an understatement. Cheng says no one "had a clue" what was going on when the 2007 anti-satellite test happened. The Chinese are not forthcoming about their space programme; no one was willing to be interviewed for this article. When Michael Griffin went on the first official Nasa trip to China's space facilities in 2006 he didn't get anywhere near a launch site. In his version of events, it was like "a first date, if you will", each side coyly sizing up the other. Others saw it as a clear message from the Chinese that there are aspects of their space programme which are not for sharing.

The stakes could be very high. Yuan believes it is not inconceivable that there could be war at some point between China and the United States, possibly provoked by US support for Taiwan's democratic system, a policy that has long riled Beijing, which insists the island is part of China. The new Taiwanese government has improved relations but, says Yuan, "the problem has not been solved . . . [The Chinese] still have to prepare for a potential conflict."

What this conflict might actually look like is a question that intrigues John Sheldon, an ebullient professor at the US air force's graduate school for air and space power strategy in Alabama. "When I'm teaching US officers I tell them, 'Whatever you imagine space war is going to look like, you're wrong. Darth Vader, Star Trek - get it out of your head . . .'" Instead, he says, it will be "very real, and at the same time rather subtle and mundane", because nobody actually knows how a space war might start, or if we would even know that it had. It could be the jamming of a signal to a satellite, or a software virus that disrupts enemy communications. Or it might simply be "six guys who hide in the bushes and eat snakes for two weeks and kick down the door of your ground station". Either way, "We'll be looking over our shoulders and wondering, 'What the hell happened there?'"

A deterioration in Sino-US relations is in nobody's interests. On a visit to Beijing at the start of last month to commemorate 30 years of diplomatic ties between the two countries, the former US president Jimmy Carter described their bond as being the most important relationship in the world today. Many observers hope that the new president will handle that relationship differently from his immediate predecessor, whose administration's anti-Chinese sentiment one insider characterised as "visceral".

For their part, the Chinese clearly want President Barack Obama to sit up and listen: they released their latest defence white paper describing (though somewhat opaquely) their nuclear capability on the day of his election. Even before he entered the Oval Office, however, Obama's transition team was talking to the Pentagon and Nasa about speeding up production of new military rockets. Recent reports speculate that Obama might merge the two organisations' space programmes - a move that, paradoxically, would mimic the Chinese arrangement. Like it or not, this space race is on.

timeline: the long march into space

    1958 Tiuquan, China's first satellite launch centre, is founded

    1966 The country tests its first guided nuclear missile

    1970 Launch of the first Chinese satellite, the Dong Fang Hong I

    1987 The Chinese become involved in the international space industry, providing services for the European aerospace manufacturer Aérospatiale-Matra

    1990 China launches its first communications satellite

    1992 The Chinese officially begin the country's manned space flight programme

    1999 The first unmanned space flight completes its 21-hour voyage

    2001 The US unilaterally withdraws from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. China's muted response ignites fears of a new space race

    2003 Launch of China's first manned mission, making it the third country to send a man (Yang Liwei, pictured below) into space

    2007 China shoots down an old satellite using anti-ballistic missiles, prompting warnings in the US of a future "star wars"

    2008 Dongfan Chung is indicted for passing US space secrets to the Chinese government

    2008 The former fighter pilot Zhai Zhigang carries out China's first ever spacewalk

Kate Ferguson

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 09 February 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Revolution 2009

Picture: David Parkin
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The humbling of Theresa May

The Prime Minister has lost all authority. The Tories will remove her as soon as they feel the time is right.

Being politicians of unsentimental, ruthless realism, the Conservatives did not linger in the grief stage of their collective disaster after the general election. Disbelief, too, was commendably brief.

Currently, their priority is to impose some sort of order on themselves. This is the necessary prelude to the wholesale change that most see as the next phase in their attempt at recovery, which they all know is essential to their career prospects – and believe is vital to a country whose alternative prime minister is Jeremy Corbyn.

For that reason, talk of Theresa May enduring as Prime Minister until the end of the Brexit negotiations in two years’ time is the preserve of just a few wishful thinkers. Some sort of calm is being established but the party is far from settled or united; there is a widespread conviction that it cannot be so under the present leader.

Elements of the great change have been executed, as Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, May’s former advisers, will testify.

However, this is only beginning, as shown by the debate in the media about how long May can survive in Downing Street. There is dissatisfaction about elements of her recent reshuffle, but it is quieted because few believe that some of the more contentious appointments or reappointments will last more than a matter of months. Her colleagues are also alarmed by the meal she has made of doing what was supposed to be a straightforward deal with the DUP.

The climate in the party at the moment is one in which everything – jobs, policies and, of course, the leadership – will soon be up for grabs. Debate over “hard” and “soft” Brexits is illusory: anyone who wants to be Conservative leader will need to respect the view of the party in the country, which is that Britain must leave the single market and the customs union to regain control of trade policy and borders. That is one reason why the prospects of David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, are being talked up.

Some of May’s MPs, for all their hard-mindedness about the future, speak of feeling “poleaxed” since the general election. Even before the result changed everything, there was dismay about the bad national campaign; but that, it was felt, could be discussed in a leisurely post-mortem.

Now, instead, it has undermined faith in May’s leadership and credibility. “The social care disaster was key to our defeat,” an MP told me. “It wasn’t just that the policy damaged our core vote, it was the amateurishness of the U-turn.” A more seasoned colleague noted that “it was the first election I’ve fought where we succeeded in pissing off every section of our core vote”.

The limited ministerial reshuffle was inevitable given May’s lack of authority, and summed up her untenability beyond the short term. Most of her few important changes were deeply ill judged: notably the sacking of the skills and apprenticeships minister Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow in Essex, and a rare Tory with a direct line to the working class; and the Brexit minister David Jones, whose job had hardly begun and whose boss, Davis, was not consulted.

George Bridges, another Brexit minister, who resigned, apparently did so because he felt May had undermined the government’s position in the negotiations so badly, by failing to win the election comprehensively, that he could not face going on.

Much has been made of how Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, was marginalised and briefed against, yet reappointed. Patrick McLoughlin, the party chairman, suffered similarly. Conservative Central Office was largely shut out from the catastrophic campaign, though no one got round to briefing against McLoughlin, who kept his head down – unheard-of conduct by a party chairman in an election.

As a political force, Central Office is for now more or less impotent. It has lost the knack of arguing the case for Conservatism. MPs are increasingly worried that their party is so introspective that it just can’t deal with the way Corbyn is spinning his defeat. “An ugly mood is growing,” one said, “because militant leftism is going unchallenged.” That cannot change until May has gone and the party machine is revived and re-inspired.


Nobody in the party wants a general election: but most want a leadership election, and minds are concentrated on how to achieve the latter without precipitating the former. One angry and disillusioned ex-minister told me that “if there were an obvious candidate she’d be shitting herself. But most of us have realised Boris is a wanker, DD isn’t a great communicator and is a bit up himself, Hammond has no charisma, and Amber [Rudd] has a majority of 346.”

On Monday a group of senior ex-ministers met at Westminster to discuss next steps. It was agreed that, with the Brexit talks under way, the most important thing in the interests of restoring order was securing the vote on the Queen’s Speech. Then, May having done her duty and steadied the proverbial ship, the party would manage her dignified and calm evacuation from Downing Street.

Those who agree on this do not always agree on the timing. However, few can make the leap of imagination required to see her addressing the party conference in October, unless to say “Thank you and goodnight” and to initiate a leadership contest. Many would like her out long before then. The only reason they don’t want it this side of securing the Queen’s Speech is that the result, as one put it, would be “chaos”, with a leadership contest resembling “a circular firing squad”.

That metaphor is popular among Tories these days. Others use it to describe the ­apportioning of blame after the election. As well as Timothy and Hill, Lynton Crosby has sustained severe wounds that may prevent the Tories from automatically requesting his services again.

Following the Brexit referendum and Zac Goldsmith’s nasty campaign for the London mayoralty, Crosby has acquired the habit of losing. And then there was Ben Gummer, blamed not only for the social care debacle, but also for upsetting fishermen with a vaguely couched fisheries policy. These failings are becoming ancient history – and the future, not the past, is now the urgent matter – yet some Conservatives still seethe about them despite trying to move on.

“I haven’t heard anyone say she should stay – except Damian Green,” a former minister observed, referring to the new First Secretary of State. Green was at Oxford with May and seems to have earned his job because he is one of her rare friends in high politics. He is regarded as sharing her general lack of conviction.

Older activists recall how the party, in 1974, clung loyally to Ted Heath after he lost one election, and even after he lost a second. Now, deference is over. Most Tory activists, appalled by the handling of the campaign, want change. They would, however, like a contest: annoyed at not having been consulted last time, they intend not to be left silent again.

That view is largely reflected at Westminster, though a few MPs believe a coronation wouldn’t be a problem, “as we don’t want a public examination of the entrails for weeks on end when we need to be shown to be running the country effectively”. Most MPs disagree with that, seeing where a coronation got them last time.

With the summer recess coming up, at least the public’s attention would not be on Westminster if the contest took place mostly during that time: hence the feeling that, once the Queen’s Speech is dealt with, May should announce her intention to leave, in order to have a successor in place before the conference season. It is then up to the party to design a timetable that compresses the hustings between the final two candidates into as short a time as compatible with the democratic process, to get the new leader in place swiftly.

Some letters requesting a contest are said to have reached Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers. One MP told me with great authority that there were eight; another, with equal certainty, said 12. Forty-eight are needed to trigger the procedure. However, engineering such a contest is not how most Tories would like to proceed. “She has had an international humiliation,” a former cabinet minister said, “and it is transparently ghastly for her. Then came the [Grenfell Tower] fire. There is no sense our rubbing it in. I suspect she knows she has to go. We admire her for staying around and clearing up the mess in a way Cameron didn’t. But she is a stopgap.”

MPs believe, with some justification, that the last thing most voters want is another general election, so caution is paramount. None doubts that the best outcome for all concerned would be for May to leave without being pushed.

Her tin-eared response to the Grenfell disaster shocked colleagues with its amateurishness and disconnection. “I’m sure she’s very upset by Grenfell,” someone who has known her since Oxford said. “But she is incapable of showing empathy. She has no bridge to the rest of the world other than Philip.” Another, referring to the controversial remark that torpedoed Andrea Leadsom’s leadership ambitions last year, said: “You would get shot for saying it, but not having had children hasn’t helped her when it comes to relating to people. Leadsom was right.”


May was quicker off the mark on Monday, issuing a statement condemning the appalling attack at Finsbury Park Mosque swiftly after it occurred, and going there shortly afterwards to meet community leaders. No one could fault her assurance that Muslims must enjoy the same protection under the law as everyone else, or the speed and sincerity with which it was made. She is learning what leadership entails, but too late.

Her administration has become unlucky. This happened to John Major, but, as in his case, the bad luck is partly down to bad decisions; and the bad luck that comes out of the blue simply piles in on top of everything else. Grenfell Tower, lethal and heartbreaking for its victims and their families, was merely more bad luck for the Prime Minister because of her slow-witted response and failure – presumably because shorn of her closest advisers – to do the right thing, and to do it quickly.

But then it turned out that her new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, had in his previous incarnation as a housing minister received a report on improving fire safety in tower blocks and done nothing about it. That is either more bad luck, or it shows May has dismal judgement in the quality of people she appoints to her close circle. Form suggests the latter.

The idea aired last weekend, that May had “ten days to prove herself”, was a minority view. For most of her colleagues it is too late. It was typical of Boris Johnson’s dwindling band of cheerleaders that they should broadcast a story supporting Davis as an “interim” leader: “interim” until Johnson’s credibility has recovered sufficiently for him to have another pop at the job he covets so much.

They also sought to create the impression that Davis is on manoeuvres, which he resolutely is not. Davis has been around long enough to know that if he wants to succeed May – and his friends believe he does – he cannot be seen to do anything to destabilise her further. It is a lesson lost on Johnson’s camp, whose tactics have damaged their man even more than he was already.

Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary and a close ally of Davis, told the Guardian: “. . . it is simply untrue that he is doing anything other
than focusing on his incredibly important brief and giving loyal support to the Prime Minister. Anyone suggesting otherwise is freelancing.” That summed up the contempt Davis’s camp has for Johnson, and it will last long beyond any leadership race.

There is a sense that, in the present febrile climate, whoever is the next leader must be highly experienced. Davis qualifies; so does Hammond, who before his present job was foreign secretary and defence secretary, and who has belatedly displayed a mind of his own since May was hobbled. Hugo Swire, a minister of state under Hammond in the Foreign Office, said of him: “He’s got bottom. He was very good to work for. He is an homme sérieux. I liked him very much and he would calm things down.”

But, as yet, there is no contest. Calls for calm have prevailed, not least thanks to Graham Brady’s steady stewardship of the 1922 Committee, and his success in convincing the more hot-headed of his colleagues to hold their fire. Yet MPs say the 1922 is not what it was 20 years ago: ministers have become used to taking it less seriously.

However, many MPs expect Brady, at a time of their choosing, to go to Downing Street and deliver the poison pill to Theresa May if she is slow to go. Some who know her fear she might take no notice. If she were to play it that way, her end would be unpleasant. As the old saying goes, there is the easy way, and there is the hard way. Remarkably few of her colleagues want to go the hard way but, like everything else in the Tory party at the moment, that could change.

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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