China Dreams Of A Palace In The Sky

Credits

Jacob Dreyer is a writer and editor based in Shanghai.

Photography by Matjaž Tančič for Noema Magazine.

1. TAKE OFF (SHANGHAI)

It’s almost impossible to visit the new astronomy museum here in China’s most populous city. Nearly half a year after it opened, when I visited last October it was so popular that tickets needed to be reserved weeks in advance. A project of the municipal government, the museum is a monument to Chinese middle class cultural optimism — a physical embodiment of the “scientific socialism” enshrined in the constitution, and of the space program propelling the country onward and upward. 

Chinese government-run museums can be hit or miss. Some, like Beijing’s China Watermelon Museum, are ridiculous; others are haunted houses of nationalism, like the Unit 731 Museum in Harbin. The new astronomy museum was surprisingly good, my friend Matjaž Tančič, a photographer, and I agreed — even if we weren’t the target audience. Like Washington D.C.’s Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, with its IMAX screen and cups of blue and green sorbet, it is clearly a pedagogical tool for cheerful crowds of middle-school students, a pretext to get young kids to connect emotionally with the ideals of science and discovery. 

In the Shanghai museum, the diorama of Albert Einstein in a Vienna café, the extensive exhibitions about climate change or axioms of quantum physics and the remarkably positive history of the American space program all seemed only tangentially related to China’s own. Such exhibits, tethered as they are to the past and the present of space exploration, will be obsolete soon enough: By the time the kids visiting the day we were there finish university, China’s space station, which is expected to be completed this year, will have hosted countless international experiments. China may have landed astronauts on the moon, perhaps even Mars. The real lesson for these kids seemed to be that our world is beset by troubling challenges, but idealistic dedication to scientific research can illuminate solutions. 

Our tour through the history of physics and astronomy ended with an exhibition about the space station, complete with a replica rocket. An interactive model of the Earth was foregrounded with a poetic description titled “Homeland”:

What was once thought the center of the world, is only a tiny corner of the universe, 
What was once considered the only Sun in outer space, is just one of the billions.
The blue marble we treasured has long faded to a pale blue dot. 
We travel, we explore, we set off for adventures.
Yet, no matter how far the journey takes us, this tiny corner is always our home.

The Shanghai Astronomy Museum, the world’s largest planetarium.

Much like America’s Apollo program, China’s space infrastructure — the Shenzhou (“Divine Land”) spacecrafts, the Tiangong (“Heavenly Palace”) space station — are named to flag China’s mythology, conjuring vivid archetypes from the past. “The space dream,” President Xi Jinping said to astronauts aboard a prototype space station in 2013, “is part of the dream to make China stronger.” 

As China becomes a mass middle-class society — McKinsey estimates that there will be 395 million Chinese in the middle class by 2030, up from 225 million today — a diffuse sense of optimism permeates the country, one of entrepreneurial spirit, of new frontiers, of the liberating possibilities of science and technology, of the pursuit of quiet, conformist prosperity. Walking through outer space-themed holiday displays at Xintiandi, Shanghai’s premier shopping district, with shoppers mugging in front of astronaut statues and drinking coffee in spaceship-themed cafes, it was impossible not to notice the way that dreams of outer space overlap that sense of optimism. None of it needs to be detailed — by being vague, the dream allows everybody to imagine space for themselves, in their own way.

Much like NASA’s Cold War-era endeavors, China’s space program is a generalized petri dish for dual-use technology: swords as well as plowshares. Even as China’s space program, funded by the state through military channels, creates hypersonic missiles and rockets emblazoned with Chinese flags, it also has had commercial spinoffs, like the Beidou satellite that powers GPS systems, that are part of a clearly articulated plan for the space program to lead the country to a pole position within the space economy. 

At the Mars simulation base in Gansu province.

China and its space program are vastly different than the Soviet Union decades ago; in fact, in many ways, China’s society resembles America’s in the early 1960s, with nationalist sentiment driven by a broad middle-class prosperity that keeps rising and rising. But China’s population is no longer growing as rapidly as it was, so a culture of techno-optimism and an obsession with infrastructure, science and technology have become the levers to thrust China into a prosperous future. 

Accordingly, China funds shadowy military technology programs — similar to America’s DARPA, the agency credited with inventing what became the internet and many other influential technologies — which intermittently result in cool rockets taking off on the nightly news. Indeed, most of China’s aerospace breakthroughs aren’t totally new — they recapitulate American achievements from an earlier era.

Many NASA and Chinese scientists dream of collaborating: “Space is a family affair,” Nie Haisheng, the commander of China’s astronaut corps, told CNN in 2015. “China, as a big country, should make our own contributions in this field.” But since 2011, the Wolf Amendment has prevented NASA from collaborating with the Chinese government and researchers. And American security concerns exclude China from joining the 15-nation cooperative effort on the International Space Station. 

Nevertheless, at the heart of China’s space aspirations, and its economy more broadly, are complicated lessons learned from the American dream. Observers like the bloggers at Dongfang Hour, which touts itself as the “go-to information website on the Chinese space industry,” see “regular and long-term support for national space projects, as opposed to the frequent changing of priorities that has sometimes hampered the U.S. space program over the past 20+ years … in part linked to the nature of the Chinese political system.” 


2. TECHNOCRACY (GUIZHOU)

Deep in Guizhou province, the green heart of China, the Chinese government’s dreams of space exploration converge with an older and more terrestrial goal: poverty eradication. In a rural valley ringed by mountains, China’s FAST (“Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope”) is remote by design, since the signals from mobile phones would impair its functioning. Visitors have to turn theirs off a few miles away. 

I visited FAST last April, part of a trip sponsored by a Chinese think tank. The objective seemed to be to lay out the government’s positive assessment of the project, to show off the telescope and how the surrounding area had been developed. Passing misty mountains and idyllic rural villages on our four-hour drive there from the provincial capital, Guiyang, my mind drifted into the past.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was founded in Shanghai, but the action was in the countryside from the start, in the dreamy green mountains of Chinese poetry and painting, where it’s easy to doze away the days, continuously refilling the teapot. In the 1920s and 30s, in provinces far away from Shanghai’s globalized modernity — Hunan, Jiangxi, here in Guizhou — dissatisfied local sons started to make war, moved by violent class-based revolutionary impulses. Not only was this the anger of factory worker against capitalist boss, it was also the powerless feeling of farmers wrestling with bad harvests and poverty. 

A few decades later, Mao Zedong famously proved his strength by swimming in the Yangtze River near Wuhan, then wrote a poem about it:

Great plans are afoot:
A bridge will fly to span the north and south, 
Turning a deep chasm into a thoroughfare; 
Walls of stone will stand upstream to the west 
To hold back Wushan’s clouds and rain  
Till a smooth lake rises in the narrow gorges.  
The mountain goddess if she is still there 
Will marvel at a world so changed.

Conquering nature — making the landscape suit industrial needs — became the project that animated the country in the early years of CCP rule. It still features in much of the official political history. 

The CCP’s homeland is in these mountain villages, and their dominant emotion — “never forget the struggle,” the propaganda banners remind us — is frustration with poverty, a desire to create material abundance. China’s founding fathers, or so the stories go, were educated in rural schools, debating literature with their teachers while it rained outside. Mao is said to have gone on a tour of Hunan with an older student, begging and writing poems for food. Though his family was relatively well-off compared to his neighbors, Mao was bullied in secondary school by his wealthy urban classmates for his provincial upbringing, and the Shanghai founders of the CCP ridiculed him for his accented Mandarin, his bad teeth and halitosis, his country clothes and manners.

In the summer of 1945, toward the end of the war with Japan, Mao gave a speech in the arid mountains of Yan’an that riffed off a famous fable, in which an old man gets annoyed by two mountains nearby and tries to dig them up. “Today,” Mao said, “two big mountains lie like a dead weight on the Chinese people. One is imperialism, the other is feudalism. The Chinese Communist Party has long made up its mind to dig them up. … If they [the masses of the Chinese people] stand up and dig together with us, why can’t these two mountains be cleared away?” This was a metaphor heard literally by the Red Army, many of whom were uneducated and appreciated Mao’s earthy, agricultural sentimentality. 

After the revolution, Mao and his friends tried to fight the powerful current of social elites moving to metropolitan areas. With repeated social mobilizations — the “down to the countryside” movement, in which urban youths were sent to live with and learn from rural laborers; the “third front,” the Cold War-era construction of massive military and industrial operations deep in the interior to protect them from attack; the establishment of huge inland cities such as Wuhan and Chongqing — they tried to move modernity to the mountains. Today, it is big data centers, radio telescopes and militaristic poverty alleviation campaigns that are sprinkled throughout the green heart of the continent. 

Guizhou, where FAST is located, is one of the poorest provinces in China.

The mountains are locked into the historical memory of the CCP, as well as into the Chinese language itself. “The nation is ruined, but mountains and rivers remain,” wrote the T’ang poet Du Fu in 755. Mao revolted against the classical style of the ancient poets, but he clung on to the idyllic rural imagery. Part of his 1925 poem “Changsha” goes:

Brooding over this immensity,
I ask, on this bondless land
Who rules over man’s destiny?
I was here with a throng of companions,
Vivid yet those crowded months and years.
Young we were, schoolmates,
At life’s full flowering;
Filled with student enthusiasm
Boldly we cast all restraints aside.
Pointing to our mountains and rivers,
Setting people afire with our words,
We counted the mighty no more than muck.
Remember still
How, venturing midstream, we struck the waters
And the waves stayed the speeding boats?

At FAST, we got a perfunctory tour of the grounds, with opportunities for selfies with ordinary cameras (no phones). Di Li, a radio astronomer, the chief scientist at the telescope and an old soul, led the way. He and I chatted about the telescopes he has known and loved, including the Green Bank just outside Charlottesville, Virginia, where I lived when I was younger, and the ways that scientists relate to politics. Any scientist will tell you that they don’t want politicians interfering with their work, and he was no different. But such arguments don’t hold in the case of an expensive telescope in a rural area. Without government funding, there’s no way this valley could have sprouted such a massive piece of advanced technology. 

Just after NASA landed astronauts on the moon in 1969, Gil Scott Heron sang about struggles with poverty back on the ground:

Was all that money I made last year  
for whitey on the moon? 
How come I ain’t got no money here?  
Hm! Whitey’s on the moon.
Y’know I just about had my fill  
of whitey on the moon.
I think I’ll send these doctor bills
airmail special  
to whitey on the moon.

The juxtaposition of hugely expensive scientific research stations with poverty can be jarring, in any time and place. In China, I wondered, what kind of socialism is it that builds telescopes in areas that still have pockets of illiteracy?

Whatever the CCP is today, it started as a movement of people in the shadows, hiding in the hills, trying to make something out of nothing. By some black magic, rituals accompanied by huge sacrifices, they succeeded. In 1949, Mao exclaimed, “The Chinese people have stood up!” Since then, they’ve been walking through the land — soldiers marching through the countryside to build factories and railways, students sent down to clear the forests, workers pouring concrete, tourists at the airport. Here is a man standing in the research console of a massive telescope, asking you if you’d like to have some tea.

Noema is hiring a senior editor who will work with us in LA or remotely. The salary range is $110,000 - $160,000, and candidates should have at least five years experience editing. Apply here.

As Li and I strolled toward the highway chatting about socialist science, I mentioned a pet theory of mine: China is Solaris. Stanisław Lem’s classic work of science fiction takes place on a planet populated by a single organism, a vast living ocean, the intentions and characteristics of which are inscrutable for the scientists studying it. Solaris and China, both roiling with life, but hidden by a thick veil. 

The tendency of outsiders to project our hopes and fears on the unknown can make it impossible to see beyond the veil. For Martin Jacques, the former editor of Marxism Today, China would be what came after capitalism; for the capitalists of America and the world, China was a billion consumers. Penetrating the atmosphere of this planet has been extraordinary difficult, despite an unprecedented cultural, economic and scientific interchange between China and the United States that lasted decades. Alas, Chinese rocket scientists are hounded and harassed in the U.S. today, and foreign scientists who come into China find themselves on a different political planet, with different rules and gravitational forces than the one they left. 

We left the telescope for the nearby city of Zunyi, an old red revolutionary base. The director of the think tank that sponsored the trip insisted that we stay at a hotel on a golf course outside of town. The hotels around here, he said, are unbearable.


3. SCIENCE FICTIONS (XI’AN)

Brown and yellow leaves blew across the ground as I cycled down Science Avenue, the main street in Xi’an’s Gaoxin district. It had rained the night before and a crisp breeze circulated through the sleepy old city. Vendors cooked chestnuts and yams by the side of the road, and stalls sold raisins, almonds, cashews and apricots, the autumn harvest of the capital of China’s northwest. 

Far away from China’s populated east coast, Xi’an is a place that’s more historically minded than futurist — the terracotta warriors are a short drive away, and the local economy is creaky, industrial and socialist. My friend Alice Wang, an American-Chinese artist who splits her time between Los Angeles and Shanghai, was having her work shown at the Xi’an OCAT museum, and so I had come to try to understand how artists and writers in China imagine what a Chinese future could look like. But first, I had to visit what’s called “aerospace town” on the city’s southern fringe. 

Xi’an’s role as a science capital in China stretches back to the 1950s, when Soviet experts came to visit and help jumpstart Chinese industry. Following the Soviet “science town” model, where employees of a given enterprise were clustered together near the workplace, residential blocks sprang up across the city for the “danwei” work units. So too did companies like Xi’an Aircraft Industrial Corporation, which was founded in 1958 during the first decade of “New China.” Today, the company is on America’s sanctions list, identified as part of China’s military-industrial complex and a military end-user. 

As I biked into aerospace town, surreptitiously taking snapshots of the danwei compounds of various state-owned enterprises, I started to notice that everything from cake shops to grocery stores to breakfast stalls claimed to be somehow related to outer space. The streets are named after China’s Shenzhou (Milky Way) spaceships, even if they look identical to the ones in any other northern Chinese town. Life seems comfortable, but hardly high-tech. And even as China’s spaceships and aircraft are being engineered here, all the little old ladies, schoolkids and people selling raisins and apples in the market identify with the project as well, projecting the civic pride one normally associates with beloved local sports teams. 

Alice was born in Xi’an. Her father was among the first to earn a Ph.D. in China immediately after the Cultural Revolution, but despite a prestigious role at Zhejiang University, with his work published in Nature, he decided to take his family to the U.S., where he did research at MIT for Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative. As a foreign national, though, he found his career options limited; the family broke up, time passed and Alice found herself back in Xi’an for her first major art show. 

Scientists’ lives often resemble the lives of artists and writers: years spent pursuing a dream that makes sense in one’s imagination. But how to show it to others? We make our experiments wherever we can find the resources to do them — everything else is secondary. 

Alice’s video art, installation pieces and photographs on display at the OCAT, engage with her father’s scientific career, albeit indirectly. I recognized FAST in her video “Pyramids and Parabolas,” which for her as for me is a potent symbol of human curiosity. In this science-obsessed society, our existential questions about the cosmos took the form of an inquiry into China’s space program, its telescopes and rockets.

Above all, in Xi’an, I felt a strong sense of the audacity of the human desire to explore outer space. What is it that motivates China’s leaders to fund this space program, and the steamed bun vendors and chestnut roasters of southern Xi’an to take such pride in it? 

On this sandy, autumnal plain, people live humble lives, close to the ground; as the academic Xiaoqing Zhang writes of her childhood memories at her grandparent’s home in a village on Xi’an’s outskirts: “The house was old but well-built and preserved, surrounded by cherry and fig trees. Frogs jumped out of the small pond near cherries, singing happily in the rain.” That world is completely gone now, she writes, leaving a bittersweet feeling: “As a Chinese citizen, I feel that the country is somehow moving forward positively.” 

Outside OCAT are muddy fields, unfinished apartment towers and camps of construction workers washing leeks and onions for dinner. Passing by, I wondered: How does it feel to go from caves to towers in a few generations, or to sell raisins to people who might be designing and building spaceships? 

Today, Alice’s father wouldn’t necessarily have needed to leave China to pursue his research; in fact, he has retired to Beihai, a beach town in Guangxi, and become invigorated by the leftist, nationalist, Maoist politics that interrupted the studies of his youth. Alice told me that her mother speculated after the family broke up that if they hadn’t gone to America, things might have turned out differently. Who knows? We build our lives in the slipstream of politics, of macro forces beyond our control. 

The quest for outer space symbolizes the desire to make the cosmos our own. For the literary critic and writer Regina Kanyu Wang, fantasies about outer space can provide opportunities to imagine a different life on the ground; as she told me: “You can see a heated feminist movement going on in China, with lots of online fights and controversies. You can also see the first woman astronaut going to space. Meanwhile, you can see the government encourages men to be more masculine, and women to have three children. All those different narratives take place at the same time. … Science fiction has become a way for those historically marginalized groups to add their voices to this era, not only present, but also future.”

Cheng Li, the Brookings Institute’s Zhongnanhai watcher, told me about the “cosmos club,” a group of technocratic leaders rising through the ranks of China’s space industry; as the 20th CCP congress approaches in the fall, it seems likely that several of these techno-populists will be elected to the Politburo, bringing Xi’s vision of the future to life.

In visits to this part of the country, Xi has spoken of a perverse and contradictory feeling about the past and China’s development similar to Zhang’s nostalgia. During his adolescence, he lived in Liangjiahe, one of the poor villages outside of Yan’an, and had his own personal struggle with the poverty of the countryside. The frustration with the stolid impoverishment of the mountains that characterized the CCP’s first generation filled Xi’s adolescence as well, and the flavors of the countryside that I tasted at the market in aerospace town would be the Proustian madeleines of his days of struggle in the heartland. The complicated sentiment of love and identification for something that you want to change in every way has long been the signal emotion of Chinese governance. 


4. THE TOURIST (HAINAN ISLAND)

Christmas arrived, and I got a strange phone call. Xi’an’s COVID outbreak, with numbers still laughably small by international standards, was leading to a severe national lockdown, and I’d have to spend Christmas Eve in a dingy business hotel. At times, China’s technocracy seems like an invincible sublime, but then I leave Shanghai, and it feels like a Potemkin village put together by well-meaning villagers. Within a day or two and three COVID tests, I got on a flight for Hainan Island, a tourist spot marketed as “China’s Hawaii,” with surfers and sunseekers and the annual Boao Forum, China’s answer to Davos. China’s Cape Canaveral, the Wenchang Space Launch Site, is also on the island, in the rural hinterland on the northeastern coast. 

The launch site isn’t accessible to foreigners, or even those who have Hong Kong or Macau passports. (When it isn’t in use, tourists are allowed to poke around.) But my driver took me to some farm fields just behind it. Winter melons and elegant brown cattle are on the farms around here; the driver told me he’d lived here as a child, until 2001, when his family was evicted and they moved to a dormitory-style apartment compound in a newly developed village. When we come here on launch days, he told me, cops show up within five minutes. 

We kept driving, and he asked me about the conditions in America — he had heard things were chaotic there. I told him everything was great, and he was easily convinced. One hand on the steering wheel, he started showing me videos of enormous crabs, which his sister sold to the Chinese community somewhere in California via her WeChat store. 

The idea of America has touched every single person and place in China. In the 1920s, Soviet peasants who didn’t know about Lenin or Stalin still knew about Henry Ford. Cruising around semitropical farmland in Wenchang, my driver was much more interested in America than inaccessible Shanghai.

That afternoon, we visited the space museum in Wenchang. It conformed to my expectations of a Chinese museum better than the one in Shanghai: three floors of random artifacts, including one devoted to knickknacks from the rocket scientist Qian Xuesen. It even had a replica of the Challenger spaceship out front. The outline of the American flag was still visible under a quick coat of paint, and “Challenger” was spelled wrong. 

For many years, the American version of the story goes, the U.S. traded with China — ideas, objects, commodities, technologies — in the hope that China would become a democracy like ours. But this failed, and so we stopped. But what if China did start to become like the U.S. — the lost world of men in grey flannel suits, suburban expansion and quiet prosperity? The America that the Chinese encountered after the reform and opening period was one of material abundance, technological accomplishment and cultural chauvinism, which has filtered into Chinese society via mimesis fueled by millions of Chinese people who have spent time in the U.S. — a demographic overrepresented in China’s scientific community. Scratch a Chinese rocket scientist and you’ll find a person reminiscent about Trader Joe’s, about the luxurious experience of tasting Häagen-Dazs, about years in a suburb of Boston, San Diego, Chicago. 

The generation of Americans who watched the rockets taking off from Cape Canaveral has grown up and had children now. Over those years, the utopian promise of America’s 1960s scientific development failed to culminate in the egalitarian society many dreamed of. And in China, emulating America’s social and economic model has led to empty consumerism, income inequality and monopoly capitalism. My taxi driver had a simple explanation for all of this. Wealth doesn’t last three generations, he told me; China is now in the second generation, traditionally of consolidating wealth, and America in the dissolute squandering phase, one that lends itself to the sort of talk of revolution that was found in China a century ago.

Near the Wenchang rocket launch facility.

Banning China from space, much like banning China from purchasing U.S. semiconductors, has only led to what the technology analyst Dan Wang calls “China’s Sputnik Moment.” Scientists, space enthusiasts and others were forced to learn that the U.S. didn’t want them — at all — a trend that has only become stronger with controversial FBI investigations over the last couple years into ethnically Chinese scientists like Hu Anming and Gang Chen. By asserting that all Chinese nationals were involved in Chinese government-funded political or military projects, the U.S. security establishment created a self-fulfilling prophecy, in which the creative drive of scientists that once took Alice Wang’s father to the U.S. now pushes 80% of U.S.-trained Chinese scientists to return to China to conduct their research. 

The science-fiction writer Chen Qiufan told me that “the space program and China’s explosion of scientific research have been taken as one of the most representative symbols of China’s uprising. By decades of promoting “科学技术是第一生产力” [a government slogan that means “science and technology is the first productive force”], the idea has taken root deep in people’s minds. And it’s something that can be quantifiably compared with U.S. and other developed countries. … People feel patriotic since that is something only Americans could do — launch rockets and spacecraft, build up a space station, land on the moon or even Mars.” 

Students in elite Chinese high schools famously study for the ferociously challenging gaokao examination, the questions on which in recent years have prompted them to imagine a future of carbon neutrality, governance modernization and common prosperity. An AI-led “ecological civilization,” the sort that Qiufan portrays in his children’s book “Carbon Zero China,” is, he says, “quite aligned with the current strategy from the state.” There’s a long list of ways that China’s government is trying to encourage science, from science-fiction writing competitions for students to museums like the one that I saw in Shanghai or conferences featuring sci-fi writers in conversation with rocket scientists. Previous generations of ambitious Chinese moved mountains and emigrated to foreign countries; today, the government is concentrating funding, national pride and creative enterprise on science, technology and space exploration — a task no longer shared with the U.S., its citizens or its academic institutions.

In Kurt Vonnegut’s 1976 novel “Slapstick,” a future America is beset by a microscopic plague from China. As American politicians advocate togetherness and family values, Chinese science reaches new apogees of success, and then the Chinese ambassador announces that the Chinese are withdrawing from all contact with the U.S. “His farewell was polite and friendly,” Vonnegut writes. “He said his country was severing relations simply because there was no longer anything going on in the United States which was of any interest to the Chinese at all.”