China’s space programme was a spin-off of its nuclear weapon programme that was created in the late 1950s under the assistance of the Soviet Union. A group of Western-trained Chinese engineers and scholars who returned from overseas after the founding of the People’s Republic also played a key role in developing the programme into a world-leading comprehensive aerospace industry over a timespan of 50 years.
Although China is widely believed to be the birthplace of black gunpowder, which was used in military applications by the Imperial Chinese Army as early as the 12th century, the country was a latecomer in the development of rocket technology. When the Industrial Revolution had finally led to the birth of the rocket propulsion technology in the early 20th century, China was descending into endless internal turmoil and conflicts.
When the Chinese Communists founded the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, the country was poverty-stricken with near non-existent industrial infrastructure and technological capability. The Chinese leadership sought assistance from the Soviet Union in order to industrialise and modernise. In December 1949, Chinese leader Mao Zedong travelled to Moscow to meet Joseph Stalin. The next February, the two countries officially signed the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance and Mutual Assistance.
Under the Sino-Soviet treaty, Moscow agreed to send the urgently needed financial assistance and technical expertise, and also helped China to build an industrial infrastructure after the Soviet model. China’s First Five-Year Plan (1953 – 1957) set out ambitious goals in industrial and economic growth, with primary emphasis on heavy industry and advanced technology. Moscow provided US$300 million in loans and sold China equipment for 156 key industrial projects, including steel complexes, mines, oil refineries, petrochemical plants, motor factories, and general machinery factories. Thousands of Soviet engineers, scientists, technicians, and planners were working in China to provide technical advice and consultancy in developing these projects.
The First Five-Year Plan was a success in term of economic growth, with a solid foundation created in heavy industry. China’s output in coal, steel, pig iron, oil, cement, and chemical fertiliser had all multiplied. Thousands of industrial and mining enterprises were built. Industrial production increased at an average annual rate of 19% between 1952 and 1957, and national income grew at a rate of 9% per year. Despite a lack of state investment in agriculture, agricultural output also increased substantially, averaging increases of about 4% per year during the same period, mainly due to gains in efficiency brought about through collectivisation.
In 1949, there were no more than 50,000 scientific and technological professionals in China, of which only 500 were engaged in scientific research, and there were only some 40 research institutions across the whole country. The China Academy of Sciences (CAS) was established a month after the founding of the PRC. By 1956, a total of 840 research institutions had been created, covering a wide range of scientific and industrial sectors. The number of scientific and technological professionals had increased to over 400,000.