Soviet assistance

Even with China’s best talents at his disposal, Qian realised that his team would still be unable to develop a modern missile independently. In July 1956, the Fifth Bureau submitted a report to the Chinese leadership requesting for Soviet assistance on missile development and operations. The request was forwarded to the Soviet government in August, but received only a lukewarm response.

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The Fifth Academy

In his plan for developing China’s jet propulsion technology and rocketry research, Dr Qian Xuesen recommended the creation of dedicated missile R&D institutions as well as a government body to provide oversight and planning for the entire missile and rocketry programme. This led to the creation of three organisations for the missile programme in 1956, all under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of National Defence (MND).

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Return of Qian Xuesen

Rocketry research is generally regarded a collective effort, requiring the involvement of many individuals and organisations across a wide range of scientific disciplines. However, it cannot be denied that a small number of key individuals often played a pivotal role in a country’s rocketry and space effort. Just as Russia has Sergei Korolev and the U.S. has Wernher von Braun, China also has its leading figure in the development of rocket technology — Dr Qian Xuesen.

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Decision to develop nuclear weapon

The Chinese political leadership took the decision to embark on a programme to develop an independent strategic nuclear deterrence in the mid-1950s. The decision came as the result of painful lessons through the country’s confrontations with the nuclear-armed United States. During the 1950s Korean War, U.S. military planners repeatedly threatened the use of nuclear weapon against Chinese and North Korean forces. In the subsequent Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1954-55, the Pentagon again recommended the use of nuclear weapons to stop a possible Chinese invasion of the Taiwan Island. In both occasions Moscow refused to offer its nuclear guarantee. The Chinese leadership concluded that only an independent nuclear capability could deter ‘nuclear blackmail’ against the country.

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Industrialisation in the 1950s

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.

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