The Stars of China’s Space Program: The Rise of a “Space Gang”?

Publication: China Brief Volume: 7 Issue: 17

Since 2001, China’s space program has received increasing attention in both budgetary allocations and technological accomplishments. More recently, the rise of China’s space program has been highlighted by the appointments of career space professionals to positions of importance in China’s weapons development bureaucracy. In fact, career space professionals will now occupy the head position at the Commission on Science, Technology, and Industry for National Defense (COSTIND) and four out of the eight top positions at the General Armaments Department (GAD) [1].

On August 30, Zhang Qingwei, General Manager of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), was promoted to the post of minister of the COSTIND. Zhang, 46, is one of the youngest ministers to have ever been appointed in the People’s Republic of China. In 2006, another career space insider, Huang Zuoxing, was promoted to the position of deputy political commissar of the GAD. Huang’s promotion was preceded in 2002 by the appointment of the former deputy political commissar of the Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center, Chi Wanchun, to the position of political commissar of the GAD. Two other deputy commanders of the GAD also have space careers. Zhang Jianqi, appointed to the GAD in 2004, has served most of his career at China’s launch facilities and Zhu Fazhong, appointed to the GAD in 2002, appears to have spent the majority of his career in the missile and radar fields. Zhang Qingwei, Chi Wanchun, Zhang Jianqi, and Zhu Fazhong are also members of the important Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party.

The promotion of career space professionals to positions of prominence in China’s military industrial complex may signal the increasing influence of the program in Chinese decision-making on weapons development. Such influence could help explain China’s decision to develop counterspace capabilities and the increasing attention that is being paid to the development of space-based C4ISR assets and China’s space program overall. For the future, the rise of China’s career space professionals to national-level decision-making positions could help China expand its position as a major space power.

Zhang Qingwei [2]

Zhang’s appointment as the minister of COSTIND follows a string of successes in China’s space industry where he was repeatedly called upon to rescue ailing projects. As general manager of CASC, Zhang has managed the most important sectors of China’s space industry during its most successful period of performance.

Official biographies describe Zhang as the wunderkind of China’s space industry. Born on November 7, 1961 in Hebei Province, Zhang graduated from the Northwest Polytechnical University (NPU) in 1982. After graduation, he was employed at the 603 Institute, where he designed aircraft tails. In a short time, he was promoted to director of the engineering department, but after three years at the institute, he returned to NPU to get his masters degree. After graduation in 1988, he joined the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT), China’s largest and most important launch vehicle manufacturer, in its overall system design department.

Zhang’s first claim to fame occurred in January 1989 while at CALT. At that time, the U.S. satellite manufacturer Hughes had contracted CASC to launch the Asiasat-1 satellite on a Long March rocket. This was the first time that the Long March had been used to launch a foreign satellite and Hughes required the satellite to be separated from the launcher only after it has stopped spinning, a technique not yet mastered by China’s space industry. During discussions about Hughes’ requirements, Zhang, then a junior engineer, proposed a method using computer modeling. CALT management quickly endorsed the method and, as one article puts it, Zhang “in one fell swoop went from being in the reserves to being part of the shock troops.” Just 10 months later, Zhang’s plan was accepted by Hughes and on April 7, 1990, the Asiasat-1 satellite was successfully launched from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center. Even though Zhang did not officially qualify for promotion, CALT bent the rules and promoted Zhang to senior engineer based on this performance.

Having proven himself, Zhang was placed in charge of the foundering Long March-2 (LM-2) rocket program, which was in danger of running over budget and behind schedule. With just 40 days left before the contract expired, Zhang and two others were able to conclude the project and on July 16, 1990 the first Long March 2 rocket successfully lifted off.

After the success of the Long March 2, Zhang was put in charge of more than 30 other engineers to determine the suitability of the LM-2 for the human spaceflight program and given three main tasks: to improve reliability indicators, guarantee astronaut safety and the adaptability of the space capsule, and write a technology improvement and feasibility report. When the human space flight project was approved on September 21, 1991, Zhang was appointed the deputy general engineer for the LM-2F and became the youngest deputy engineer in the Chinese aviation and space industries. In this capacity, Zhang personally wrote the “Long March 2F Design Criteria” which governed the entire stage of the research and development process.

The year 1996 was devastating for China’s space industry. In that year, CALT suffered two launch failures: a LM-3B in February and a LM-3 in August. The failures were the death knell for China’s commercial launch industry and the subsequent controversy over the U.S. industry handling of the failures would lead to convictions involving export control violations and recriminations of Chinese spying. In August 1996, Zhang was again asked to fill the breech and was named deputy director of CALT and placed in charge of the next launch of the LM-3 and, above all, putting China’s launch industry back on track. Zhang committed his team to quality and on May 12, 1997, a Dongfanghong-3 (DFH-3) communications satellite was successfully launched.

In July 1999, Zhang was promoted to deputy general manager of CASC and a member of the leading Communist Party organization within CASC. During the next two years, China would successfully launch two experimental Shenzhou capsules. Upon becoming deputy general manager, Zhang set about making the corporation more profitable. He did this in part by emphasizing technological and organizational innovations and introducing information technology into the production process. Through these efforts, it is said that many people who had left the space industry returned.

In December 2001, Zhang was promoted to general manager and party general secretary of CASC. At the same time, he was also promoted to be the deputy commander of the human spaceflight program. In November 2002, Zhang’s political fortunes increased when he became a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, one of the most important Communist Party organizations in China.

It is easy to attribute Zhang’s exploits to the hagiography that often accompanies biographies of official personages in the Chinese press, but there is no doubt that Zhang’s quick rise through government and party ranks has been due to his stellar performance. Through his leadership of CASC and its subsidiary organizations, Zhang has been responsible for driving the Chinese space industry’s most impressive performance ever. Under its subsidiary CALT, CASC successfully conducted 61 straight launches of the Long March rocket since 1996, raising its reliability to 94 percent, a success rate equivalent to other international carriers. Moreover, China has launched more satellites and more different types of satellites than at any other time in its history. CASC’s subsidiary, the China Academy of Spaceflight Technology (CAST), builds the majority of China’s satellites, including the DFH, Sinosat, and Zhongxing communication satellites, the Beidou navigation and positioning satellite, recoverable satellites, the Ziyuan earth resources satellite, the Haiyang ocean surveillance satellites, and the Shenzhou manned space capsule. China has also been able to sign the first-ever contracts for the export of satellites to Nigeria and Venezuela and for the first time in six years, conducted a commercial launch of a satellite in 2005. Moreover, China completed testing of its human spaceflight program and launched two manned spaceflights. Only one failure has marred an otherwise flawless performance: the solar panels of a Sinosat-2 launched in October 2006 failed to open properly causing the loss of the satellite.

These accomplishments have earned Zhang a number of awards. In 1991, he was selected as one of the top ten young science workers in the space industry; in 1999, he was recognized as one of the top 10 outstanding young people in China; and in 2003, he was the CCTV businessperson of the year [3].

Chi Wanchun [4]

General Chi Wanchun was born in 1946 in Shandong Province, joined the PLA in 1965, and was enrolled in the Harbin Military Engineering Academy until 1970. Chi’s first assignment after graduation was at the Weinan Satellite Training Station in Shaanxi Province where he studied the application of computer technology to observing and controlling satellites. He then went on to serve in a series of leadership positions in China’s Telemetry, Tracking, and Control (TT&C) network. He has served as the political commissar of the Kashgar Satellite Observation and Control Center, the political commissar of the Minxi Satellite Observation and Control Center, and deputy political commissar of the Xichang Satellite Launch Center. He also served a tour as the political commissar of the COSTIND logistics department. In 1990, he was appointed deputy political commissar of the Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center. This was followed in 1997 by a promotion to be deputy director of the political department of COSTIND. For a short time in 1999, Chi was the director of the political department of the GAD until he was promoted to the political commissar position of the National Defense University of Science and Technology, a school heavily involved in weapons development and research. In October 2002, he was elected to the Central Committee and was promoted to political commissar of the GAD.

Huang Zuoxing [5]

General Huang Zuoxing is the current deputy political commissar of GAD. He was born in 1948 in Shaanxi Province and joined the Army in 1968. He received an undergraduate correspondence degree from the Economic Management Department of the Central Party School. He was political commissar of the Taiyuan Satellite Launching Center and assumed the office of deputy political commissar of the GAD in August 2006.

Zhang Jianqi [6]

Lieutenant General Zhang Jianqi is a deputy commander of GAD. He was born in March 1946 in Shandong Province. In 1970, he graduated from the Harbin Military Engineering College with a degree in nuclear physics. After graduation, he served tours at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center and the Xichang Satellite Center. After these appointments, he served as the department head of COSTIND’s testing department. In 1997, he became the deputy director of the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center and became its head in 2001. In 2004, he became a deputy director of the GAD and a member of the Central Committee.

Zhu Fazhong [7]

Lieutenant General Zhu Fazhong was born in May 1948 in Anhui Province and is a graduate of Beijing University with a degree in computational mathematics. Zhu, who joined the PLA in 1969, is not strictly a space professional and it appears that much of his career has been in the missile field. From 1969 to 1993, he served at multiple testing bases. In 1993, he was the commander of a test facility involved in launch telemetry and in 1994, he was involved in a test facility working on mobile radar. In 1999, he was the commander of a testing base and in 2002, he was promoted to be deputy director of the GAD. In 2002, he was appointed an alternate member of the Central Committee.


The promotion of five space professionals to prominent positions within China’s military industrial complex may shed light on the direction of China’s military modernization, the nature of advancement in the government and military, and China’s future leadership. These people are now in key positions to influence the direction of Chinese military hardware development. Indeed, the appointments suggest the rise of a “hangtian bang” or “space gang” within China’s military-industrial complex that could shape policy for years to come.

At a macro-level, the appointments appear to reinforce the PLA’s commitment to making it a high-technology force capable of fighting and winning informationized wars. More specifically, the appointments also suggest that the PLA’s commitment to space is increasing. While more attention has been focused on China’s space program after the January 11 anti-satellite test, China also appears committed to building a robust space-based C4ISR system. As one author writes, “Recent high technology local wars have shown: space weapon systems, whether at the strategic or tactical levels, cannot be removed from modern operations and have an increasingly important role in no-contact warfare” [8].

The promotion of career space professionals may also indicate that China’s commitment to expanding its role as a major space power will continue, not only for military space programs but also for its more controversial lunar and human spaceflight programs. The presence of a group of space professionals in top decision-making positions also gives credence to a bureaucratic politics model for China’s decision to develop counterspace capabilities. According to one report, these five individuals are all proponents of establishing an experimental space warfare unit [9]. Such leadership in the past has proven critical with major scientific and engineering programs. The human spaceflight program faced major opposition until leading scientists appealed directly to Deng Xiaoping for his approval [10]. Likewise, the Three Gorges Dam project received significant opposition from the National People’s Congress and was only approved because of Li Peng’s personal efforts.

These appointments also suggest something about paths to promotion in the Communist Party. Much research has focused on the role of factions within the promotion process. For example, there has been conjecture that the promotion of Chi Wanchun was due in part to his close relationship to the former minister of national defense, Chi Haotian (no relation). After his promotion, Chi Wanchun could have filled subsequent GAD openings with other space colleagues. However, it is also evident that individual qualifications do play a role. While data on the other cadres profiled here is too sparse for effective analysis, the case of Zhang Qingwei illustrates that achievement can also guarantee success in the Communist Party.

Finally, the careers of these individuals may continue. It is rumored that Zhang Qingwei is being groomed for higher positions [11]. Indeed, it can be argued that Zhang could have more of an effect on China’s space industry by remaining at CASC instead of at COSTIND where he will have less tactical influence over the development of weapon systems. Clearly, the advancement of Zhang Qingwei has more to do with his outstanding success as a manager rather than simply serving as a space professional.

While it is ordinary for top ranking officials to have municipal or provincial experience, the current premier, Wen Jiabao, had no such experience and rose up through the ranks of the Ministry of Land and Resources and the General Office of the Central Committee. Zhang’s next appointment should be telling since it will most likely involve a position outside of the military industrial complex. In regards to the military members of the space gang, the current head of the GAD, Chen Bingde, has spent most of his career in operations and it would not be unreasonable to consider a career armaments officer, like the ones profiled here, to replace him.


The origins of the space gang are unknown, with their formation possibly the result of direction from the top leadership of the PLA or simply due to serendipitous conditions. It is also possible that the PLA’s commitment to building an informationized force led to the selection of individuals highly competent in advanced technologies. In this case, careers in the space program have made them uniquely qualified to serve in these roles. Finally, institutional factionalism may have also played a role. Whatever the reason, the influence of the space gang may be felt for many years to come as China’s space program grows in numbers and complexity.


1. COSTIND and GAD form two parts of China’s three part military industrial complex, with the third being the defense industries. COSTIND is a governmental organization under the State Council responsible for coordinating weapon and equipment development between the defense industry and the military. GAD is a military organization under the CMC responsible for weapons and equipment development and procurement. Officially, GAD presents its requirements to COSTIND, who then coordinates with the defense industries to meet the requirements. In practice, there is an overlap between the two organizations and no clear-cut delineation of powers.

2. Unless otherwise noted, this section is taken from Yu Xing, “Zhang Qingwei Becomes the Youngest Minister Who Previously Strengthened the International Prestige of China’s Space Program (Zhang qingwei chengwei zui nianqing buzhang ceng liwan zhongguo hangtian guoji shengyu),”, September 1, 2007.

3. Zhang Qingwei, Together Innovating a Brilliant China Space Program (Gongchuang zhongguo hangtian xin huihuang),” China Scholars Abroad (Shenzhou xueren), May 2005, p. 17.

4. Unless otherwise noted, this is section taken from Chin Chien-li, “The CPC’s Key Figure for Combating Taiwan: A Commentary and Profile of Chi Wanchun, Political Commissar of the General Armament Department (Zhonggong dui tai zuozhan zhongjian renwu zongzhuangbeibu zhengwei chi wanchun jiangjun pingfu),” Chien Shao, September 1, 2006, pp. 58-61.

5. “Huang Zuoxing Promoted to Deputy Political Commissar of PLA General Armament Department (Huang Zuoxing Sheng Zong Zhuangbeibu fu zhengwei)”, Ta Kung Pao, August 31, 2006.

6. “Leadership Organization (Lingdao xulie),

7. “Leadership Organization (Lingdao xulie),

8. Pan Changpeng, Gu Wenjin, and Chen Jie, “Analysis of the Capabilities of Military Satellite Support of Anti-ship Missiles in Offensive and Defensive Operations (Junshi weixing dui fanchuan daodangongfang zuozhan de zhiyuan nengli fenxi),” Winged Missile Journal (Feihang daodan), May 2006, p. 12.

9. Chin Chien-li, “The CPC’s Key Figure for Combating Taiwan: A Commentary and Profile of Chi Wanchun, Political Commissar of the General Armament Department (Zhonggong dui tai zuozhan zhongjian renwu zongzhuangbeibu zhengwei chi wanchun jiangjun pingfu),” Chien Shao, September 1, 2006, p. 59.

10. “The Highest Leader Has The Final Say (Zuigaoceng lingdao paiban),” China Space News (Zhongguo hangtian bao), October 16, 2003, p. P34.

11. “5th Generation Elite Who Will Be Responsible for China in the Future,” Sentaku, March 1, 2005, p. 34.