Taste of things to come
While its moon ventures are clearly symbolic, writes Eddie Ford, China’s technological advances and the likely US response should not be underestimated
In an act of huge symbolism last week, China planted its flag on the moon. After collecting various rock samples, the Chang’e-5 probe - named after the Chinese moon goddess - successfully docked two days later with an orbiter, representing the first time in 44 years that humans have harvested lunar rocks.
The state-run Xinhua news agency proclaimed that it was China’s first “rendezvous and docking in lunar orbit” and also the first lift-off of a Chinese craft from an extraterrestrial body. Pouring billions into the programme, the Chang’e-5 is part of an ongoing series of robotic moon missions run by the China National Space Administration (CNSA) - incorporating lunar orbiters, landers, rovers and sample return spacecraft, launched using Long March rockets (expendable rockets that can only be used once). Plans for China’s “space dream”, as president Xi Ping calls it, have been put into overdrive - being a generation behind the United States and Russia.
The country launched its first satellite in 1970, but actual human spaceflight took decades longer, Yang Liwei becoming the first taikonaut in 2003. A Chinese lunar rover landed on the far side of the moon in January 2019 in a global first that further boosted Beijing’s aspirations to become a space superpower. Other targets include creating a powerful rocket capable of delivering payloads heavier than those Nasa and the private firm SpaceX can handle; a lunar base; and a permanently crewed space station. The CNSA plans to land a crew on the moon’s south pole “within the next 10 years”, which is undoubtedly ambitious, but not impossible. Towards that end, the launch date for Chang’e-6 is 2024, depending on the final outcome and results of the previous mission.
Meanwhile, Xi wants a permanent space station called Tiangong (‘heavenly palace’) in orbit as early as 2022. The first prototype was launched in 2011 and completed its mission before China lost control of the craft and it crashed into the ocean in 2018. In a move towards technological self-reliance, China has launched its own Beidou network of navigation satellites, so the People’s Liberation Army does not need to rely on a US or rival Russian system - claiming that it will eventually reach millimetre-level accuracy with post-processing. According to China Daily in 2015, 15 years after the satellite system was launched, it was generating a turnover of $31.5 billion per annum for major Chinese-owned companies. Interestingly, China has proceeded more cautiously than the breakneck pace of the US-Soviet space race of the 1960s, which was marked by fatalities. By contrast, China’s crewed missions have gone ahead without incident (as far as we know). Almost inevitably, China is in a growing space rivalry with Asian neighbours and strategic competitors, Japan and India - both of which have sent their own probes to Mars. Things are hotting up.
Of course, the Chang’e-5 probe - or future ones, for that matter - will not tell scientists anything of real importance, even if Chinese scientists hope the samples will help them learn more about the moon’s origins, volcanic activity, surface, and so on. Xiao Long, a planetary geologist at the China University of Geosciences in Wuhan, recently told Nature magazine that the samples could “rewrite the history of the moon” if they show that there was still volcanic activity one or two billion years ago - previous lunar material suggested that this activity stopped around 3.5 billion years ago.
Obviously China’s recent trip to the moon is really all about propaganda - boosting the image and standing of the state. That is what John F Kennedy’s pledge in March 1961 was all about and it was certainly remarkable how quickly it was done - an engineering miracle, when you consider that America was behind the Soviet Union in terms of space technology.
After all, the USSR not only had the first artificial satellite and animal in space - the unfortunate dog, Laika - but the first ever spacewalk in 1965, with the Voskhod 2 mission and Alexei Leonov - the latter exiting the capsule for over 12 minutes.1 Each was a massive propaganda coup for the Soviet Union and a blow to American imperial pride, with Leonov getting selected to be the first Soviet person to land on the moon - alas that project was cancelled, though it does provide fertile ground for writers of alternative history. But America overtook the Soviets in a spectacular fashion and landed two astronauts on the moon in 1969. Neil Armstrong’s “one small step” was an unalloyed triumph for the United States - a very public announcement that it was the world’s top dog. It was the turn of the Soviet Union to get its pride dented.
Now, you can talk about non-stick frying pans all you like, yet the fact of the matter is that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin exploring the lunar surface did not result in a scientific breakthrough of any kind - we did not learn anything that could not have been found out using non-crewed landers, which at the end of the day are much cheaper and safer. The same goes for China if it eventually lands someone on the moon - it would be a political statement that it has arrived as a major challenger for world power.
Clearly communists do not discount, let alone scoff, at symbols and images - humans are not dispassionate adding machines; nor do they view everything purely in terms of cost-benefit analysis. We all need inspiration in one form or another. But most communists do not believe that the future of humanity lies in the dark void of space. Yes, we have the example of the ‘final frontier’ in America - which in many respects was a voyage to another world, and just look how that turned out, with the near genocide of the indigenous peoples.
But going into space, colonising the moon or Mars - terraforming them even - is an entirely different matter altogether. It is a project that we should not buy into, even if the fiction writer, Ray Bradbury, tried to convince us that space travel represented humanity’s “effort to become immortal” by taking “our seed out into space.”2 He was hardly alone in expressing such sentiments. Of course, the militarisation of space is happening in front of our eyes - something communists adamantly oppose as an obscenity on every level. Rather, the future of humanity is here on this planet. for we are a natural, evolved species - and therefore should treat the Earth with the respect it deserves as the only planet that can really support human life. Mars, by contrast, is a hellhole. Okay, we can idly dream of visiting it. But six months to get there in a glorified tin-can, bombarded non-stop by deadly radiation - no thanks! Elon Musk is welcome to live and die there, but I will not be joining him.
On this score, reading futurology from the 1960s is instructive. For example, take Isaac Asimov - probably best known for I, robot and the Foundation series of books. He wrote about building cities on the bottom of the sea, as the surface would be too overcrowded and polluted. He predicted that by 2014 we would have seen “a good beginning made in the colonisation of the continental shelves” - as “underwater housing will have its attractions to those who like waters-sports and will undoubtedly encourage the more efficient exploitation of ocean resources, both food and mineral”.3 Sorry, Isaac, nice thought maybe, but that was never going to happen, and nor will human colonisation of Mars.
Coinciding with the news about the Chang’e-5 expedition was the announcement about the new quantum computer developed by the Chinese - another big statement about how the country needs to be taken very seriously. Apparently Juizhang, as it is called, is capable of performing at least one task 100 trillion times faster than the world's fastest supercomputers and 10 billion times faster than Google's Sycamore quantum computer - which last year completed a task in 200 seconds that the company claimed would take a state-of-the-art supercomputer 10,000 years to finish, boasting about “quantum supremacy”.4 Perhaps they spoke too soon. Nor does Juizhang, it seems, have to be kept permanently at temperatures approaching absolute zero - unlike the quantum computers being developed in the west.
Unsurprisingly, China has invested heavily in quantum computing, spending $10 billion on the country’s National Laboratory for Quantum Information Sciences. This does not mean that China has a fully working super-quantum computer yet. Juizhang was built to solve just one type of problem - it makes calculations about the behavior of light particles using optical circuits. But it is a major milestone on the way there, while the rest of us still cannot work out how to get the printer working.
In other words, we are talking about a qualitative development or technological leap that shows the rapid progress China is making. In the past, as we have seen, China was blatantly copying American technology. Now the country is pioneering completely new technology.
That does not mean that China is on the cusp of becoming the new world hegemon, but it does tell you that it can no longer be simply classified as a medium-developed country with a big military. In certain areas, such as quantum computing, it is claiming to be a world-beater - its scientists going into areas that are currently unknowable, with implications for everyday life that are totally unpredictable at this stage. But all this work in progress will eventually have an enormous impact on practical applications, especially military ones - the generals must be rubbing their hands at the thought of what might be coming down the line fairly soon.
All of this means that China is a genuine rival to the US, which is precisely why you should not expect the Joe Biden administration to take a radically different approach to that of Donald Trump. The language might be different, but the substance will be the same. The ongoing trade dispute between Australia and China gives us a taste of things to come, the government of Scott Morrison complaining bitterly that Beijing is engaged in a series of “disruptive and restrictive measures” against trade by suspending imports and imposing hefty tariffs. In this way, according to the Australian National University’s national security college, the Chinese authorities are “turning economic goods into goads of coercion”.
One thing you can be certain of is that the US under Biden will organise its allies in an attempt to isolate China and thwart its progress on all fronts - technological, scientific, military and economic. Donald Trump might come to be regarded as a peacenik by comparison.