Public Opinion and China’s Space Ambitions

Lincoln Hines is an Assistant Professor for the West Space Seminar at the US Air War College. He received his doctorate in Government from Cornell University in 2021. He was previously a Guggenheim predoctoral fellow at the National Air and Space Museum, a visiting researcher at Peking University’s School of International Studies, and a Nonresident WSD-Handa Fellow at the Pacific Forum.

The views expressed in this article represent the personal views of the author and are not necessarily the views of the Department of Defense, the Department of the Air Force or The Air University.

How does China’s public perceive the country’s space activities and U.S.—China space competition? China’s space program has grabbed international headlines over the past few years for several noteworthy feats, such as building a space station and landing a spacecraft on the far side of the moon and Mars. Outside of the public eye, China is also seeking to integrate space capabilities to increase its military might. China’s growing prominence in the space domain has given rise to concern among American policymakers about what China’s growing space power means for U.S. interests. Pundits increasingly claim that the United States and China are engaged are reviving a Cold-War style space race.

The factors shaping Chinese ambitions in the space domain are multi-faceted, and include enhancing China’s military, economic, and diplomatic power. China’s space program is also targeted at domestic audiences. China has gone to great lengths to promote its space program to domestic audiences, such as establishing a National Space Day holiday, and featuring taikonauts (Chinese astronauts) prominently in state media, parades, and even China’s annual Spring Festival Gala (which is the most highly watched televised event on the planet).

To understand the domestic motives behind China’s pursuit of space power, I conducted an online survey with ordinary Chinese citizens to learn their views regarding China’s activities in the space domain. This survey is, to my knowledge, the first study of Chinese public perceptions of China’s space activities. Although public opinion is only one of the factors shaping Chinese space policy, surprisingly little is known (aside from anecdotal evidence) about how Chinese citizens feel about China’s space activities. In the United States, by contrast, decades of surveys have examined American perceptions of U.S. space policy, allowing scholars to probe whether and how American public attitudes shape, enable, or constrain American space policy. Without this data in the Chinese case, it is difficult to begin making evidence-based claims about whether and or how Chinese public attitudes shape Chinese space policy, or if Chinese space policy is aligned with public priorities.

I recently published the results of this research in my article “Heavenly Mandate: Public Opinion and China’s Space Activities” for the peer-reviewed journal Space Policy.

Why care about the perceptions of China’s public?

Although scholars have examined the relationship between space policy and public opinion in the United States, far less is known about this relationship in authoritarian regimes such as China. There are valid reasons to be skeptical that China would be influenced by public opinion. After all, China lacks a free press and an independent civil society, let alone electoral accountability. However, there are reasons to think that even autocracies such as China are concerned with public opinion. As other scholars have argued, in the post-Tiananmen era, the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has faced a growing legitimacy crisis. To shore up its legitimacy, the CCP has increasingly sought to demonstrate responsiveness at the local level to public pressure. More broadly, it has gone to great lengths to monitor, analyze, and influence online public opinion. Other scholars find that public opinion has also shaped how China approaches international crises, and that the government can incur “audience costs” when it fails to demonstrate resolve in a crisis.

If public opinion can influence state policy in these areas, it is also plausible that it could influence state policy in other areas such as space policy. Moreover, given how China’s government goes to great lengths to promote its space program to domestic audiences, there are reasons to think that the CCP is also concerned with how its space program is perceived by domestic audiences. 

To investigate Chinese attitudes on space policy, I carried out a nationally representative survey with 1,482 online Chinese respondents, matching the survey on key demographic variables to ensure representativeness for China’s online population. In China, there are important reasons to conduct an online survey. Scholars have found that respondents tend to be more candid in their responses online than in-person surveys. Perhaps more importantly, China’s government pays close attention to online public opinion—seeking to monitor and influence online opinion. Thus, the opinion of China’s online population is important to understand because China’s government devotes considerable resources to interpret and shape it. I present some findings from my article below.

Perceptions of a “Space Race” and a US Threat

Over the past few years, a slew of articles have emerged claiming that the United States and China are engaged in a space race with one another. Of course, there are significant differences between now and the period that is typically referred to as the US-Soviet space race. Many of China’s feats are replicating accomplishments that the United States achieved decades ago. While China has had some notable firsts, such as becoming the first country to land on the far side of the moon, other feats—including sending humans to space, landing on Mars, or building a space station—were accomplished by the United States decades ago. Even if China landed humans on the moon, it has already been half a century since the US astronauts first did so. Likewise, the notion that China is racing the US in space does not correlate with the pacing of Chinese space goals. China’s space program is over sixty years old, and its goals (from human spaceflight to lunar exploration) have been decades in the making and proceeding according to schedule.

It is also important to note the difference in international context. While some analysts claim that contemporary US-China tensions resemble a new Cold War, there are several differences. The United States and China, for example, have a much closer trade relationship with one another than did the Soviets and Americans during the Cold War. Similarly, as other scholars have argued, although China may differ from the United States in many respects, particularly in its attitude toward other autocracies and how it understands and seeks to shape the international order, it is a far cry from the ideological struggle of the Cold War, which was characterized by zealous Soviet attempts to promote Communist revolutions in other countries.

Nonetheless, despite these differences in context, it is possible that such rhetoric of a space race could take hold in China or could be used by Chinese leaders as justification for costly space projects. I therefore asked respondents whether they viewed a space race with the United States as inevitable. The survey results suggests that many Chinese respondents do view the possibility of a “space race” as inevitable. Forty-eight percent of respondents strongly agreed, and thirty-seven percent of respondents agreed that a space race with the United States was inevitable. This is particularly notable because, regardless of the dissimilarities between US-China space competition today and that between the Americans and Soviets, it is possible that a “space race” narrative could be accepted by the Chinese public. Moreover, this could allow Chinese leaders to justify further investments in outer space on the grounds of competing with the United States.

To further understand how respondents understood this competition with the United States, the survey asked respondents whether they viewed US space power as threatening. The results indicate that most respondents viewed US space power as a military threat, with thirty-four percent of respondents agreeing, and thirty-nine percent of respondents strongly agreeing that the US posed a threat to Chinese security in outer space. Overall, the findings suggest that Chinese leaders could justify an expansion of Chinese space activities through rhetoric of a space race or by invoking the threat of US space power. Moreover, the results suggest that this proclivity to view the United States as a security threat and a space race as inevitable may increase the probability of security-dilemma dynamics unfolding in US-China space relations. Most space technologies are inherently dual use, so it is easy for one states actions in space (benign or nefarious in intent) to be regarded as potential threats. Ultimately, that the Chinese public already views the United States as threatening suggests that security dilemma dynamics are likely and that Chinese leaders may justify investments in space to safeguard Chinese security interests.

Despite these threat perceptions, I also found evidence that Chinese respondents would support efforts to cooperate with the United States in space exploration. Survey responses suggest that a large majority of respondents support cooperating with the United States in space exploration, with forty percent of respondents agreeing, and 35 percent of respondents strongly agreeing that China and the United States should cooperate. Considering Chinese perspectives regarding the inevitability of a space race, as well as threat perceptions of the US space program, it is, perhaps, counterintuitive that respondents would support cooperation with the United States in space (as cooperation could be perceived as a liability). This suggests either that respondents view cooperation as possible or a means to ameliorate tensions with the United States or that respondents hold conflicting policy positions for some other reason. This finding is important because it suggests that Chinese leaders would not face domestic costs for pursuing cooperation with the United States in space exploration.

Should we ban space weapons?

The survey results also provide important data regarding the Chinese public’s appetite for global governance issues such as bans on space weapons. Interpretations of the current legal regime governing space only ban the placement or use of weapons of mass destruction in outer space, while allowing for the use and testing of other space weapons. In 2014, China and Russia proposed the Prevention of Placement of Weapons in Outer Space Treaty (PPWT) which would ban the placement of all weapons in outer space. This treaty, however, has been criticized for lacking enforcement mechanisms and for its hypocrisy, as Russia and China have continued to develop space weapons.  

As evidenced by its most recent space white paper, China is increasingly interested in shaping the rules and norms governing outer space. It is, therefore, important to understand Chinese attitudes regarding international law and their perspectives on measures regarding the weaponization of space. Results indicate that the majority of respondents support abiding by existing international laws governing space, with fifty-eight percent of respondents strongly agreeing, and thirty-five percent of respondents agreeing that China should abide by international laws governing space. Results also suggest comparatively high levels of support for banning space weapons, with forty-three percent of respondents strongly agreeing, and thirty-eight percent of respondents agreeing that China should approve an agreement to ban the use of outer space weapons. This finding is not altogether surprising as China’s formal stance has been to support bans on the weaponization of space as exemplified in the PPWT (despite pursuing space weapons). Yet support for a ban on space weapons was slightly lower than that for abiding by international law. This suggests that some respondents may be hesitant to place new limits on Chinese weapons or may be concerned about additional measures encroaching on Chinese sovereignty.

Remaining Questions

Altogether, the survey results provide a first attempt to make sense of Chinese public perceptions of space policy and how they might align with and potentially influence Chinese government space policy. Nonetheless, there are inherent limitations to my study and further questions that remain in order to understand how Chinese public opinion may influence Chinese space policy.

Although this survey is the first study of Chinese public perceptions of space activities, it provides only a snapshot of Chinese sentiment. To begin assessing questions regarding the durability of these beliefs and whether Chinese space policy is responsive to these perceptions, multiple waves of this survey need to be carried out over the course of several years. It will also allow researchers to understand how Chinese perceptions correspond with changes in Chinese policy. This will clarify how independent Chinese attitudes are from changes in government rhetoric and policy, or whether individuals simply form preferences based on elite cues. Similarly, the use of survey experiments—which include manipulating survey text for control and treatment groups—could glean insights into the subtle effects of phenomena such as different framing and elite cues, and how this affects individual attitudes. Further surveys could also ask more detailed questions about public views regarding more specific types of space weapons.

For more information on the rest of the findings from my survey, please check out my article at Space Policy.