China in space: partner or threat?

Today the State Council of the People’s Republic of China published a 2011 update of a white paper on China’s space activities. This policy document (the State Council has no legal or regulatory authority) states:

“Outer space is the common wealth of mankind. Exploration, development and utilization of outer space are an unremitting pursuit of mankind. Space activities around the world have been flourishing. Leading space-faring countries have formulated or modified their development strategies, plans and goals in this sphere. The position and role of space activities are becoming increasingly salient for each active country’s overall development strategy, and their influence on human civilization and social progress is increasing.

The Chinese government makes the space industry an important part of the nation’s overall development strategy, and adheres to exploration and utilization of outer space for peaceful purposes. Over the past few years, China’s space industry has developed rapidly and China ranks among the world’s leading countries in certain major areas of space technology. Space activities play an increasingly important role in China’s economic and social development.”

Sound threatening? Well, no…. No doubt the process of reading between the lines is under way, though, with China hawks in the U.S. Congress and right-leaning policy analysts, among others. This process is complicated by the subjectivity involved in interpretation as well as the subtleties involved in translation (see below).

The 2011 white paper states:

The purposes of China’s space industry are: to explore outer space and to enhance understanding of the Earth and the cosmos; to utilize outer space for peaceful purposes, promote human civilization and social progress, and to benefit the whole of mankind; to meet the demands of economic development, scientific and technological development, national security and social progress; and to improve the scientific and cultural knowledge of the Chinese people, protect China’s national rights and interests, and build up its national comprehensive strength.”

Among key principles underlying the Obama administration’s 2010 national space policy are these:

*  “The United States considers the sustainability, stability, and free access to, and use of, space vital to its national interests.”

*   “A robust and competitive commercial space sector is vital to continued progress in space. The United States is committed to encouraging and facilitating the growth of a U.S. commercial space sector that supports U.S. needs, is globally competitive, and advances U.S. leadership in the generation of new markets and innovation-driven entrepreneurship.”

Among goals established in this policy are to:

*  “Energize competitive domestic industries to participate in global markets and advance the development of: satellite manufacturing; satellite-based services; space launch; terrestrial applications; and increased entrepreneurship”; and

*  “Expand international cooperation on mutually beneficial space activities to: broaden and extend the benefits of space; further the peaceful use of space; and enhance collection and partnership in sharing of space-derived information.”

Except for the facts that the U.S. space program is older and bigger and thus further ahead, what’s the big difference? (You tell me….)

Dr. Wang Guoyu, visiting scholar at the National Center for Remote Sensing, Air and Space Law, University of Mississippi, and Deputy Director of the Institute of Space Law at the Beijing Institute of Technology, is a member of the committee of experts assembled by the Chinese government to draft regulations on space debris mitigation. At the 6th Eilene M. Galloway Symposium on Critical Issues in Space Law, Dec. 1, 2011, in Washington, D.C., Dr. Wang reported that a key term in English-language versions of Chinese space policy documents is the product of an error in translation.

Chinese space policy documents, including the 2011 space policy white paper and its two predecessors (2006 and 2001), incorporate the critical term “common heritage of mankind” used in the United Nations Moon Treaty. The meaning of “common heritage” in the Moon Treaty is vague. In translating this English-language term into Chinese, incorporating it in Chinese space policy documents, and then translating Chinese space policy documents back into English, the term has become “common wealth” (two words), Wang said.

The Chinese word for “common heritage,” when read in Chinese, “means ‘joint possession,’ which includes the right of ownership and the obligation of getting permission from other co-owners before [exercising] the right,” Wang explained. Rights and obligations “are improperly enlarged (or emphasized) in the Chinese translation because the [Moon Treaty] does not clearly stipulate” what they are. “Did the translator intend to emphasize [the] right[s] and obligation[s] of common ownership?” he asked. “What is the legal meaning of the Chinese word and its translation as ‘common wealth’…? What is the relationship between the Chinese word, the translation, and the relevant space treaty terms?”

Back to China’s new white paper…. China has “established a long-term cooperation plan with Russia…undertaken extensive cooperation with Ukraine…signed the ‘Status Quo of China-Europe Space Cooperation and the Cooperation Plan Protocol’ under the mechanism of the China-Europe Joint Commission on Space Cooperation….have worked out a comprehensive bilateral space cooperation plan [with Brazil]…signed a cooperation framework agreement on space and marine science and technology with France under the mechanism of the Sino-French Joint Commission on Space Cooperation…established a joint laboratory on space science and technology [with Britain]…signed a framework agreement with Germany on bilateral cooperation in the field of human spaceflight…signed a memorandum of understanding on technological cooperation in the peaceful utilization and development of outer space with Venezuela…taken part in activities organized by the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space…[and participated in] the Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization [and] activities organized by the International Committee on Global Navigation Satellite Systems, International Space Exploration Coordination Group, Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee, Group on Earth Observations, World Meteorological Organization and other inter-governmental international organizations.”

What about U.S.-China space cooperation? “The director of the U.S. National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA) visited China and the two sides will continue to make dialogue regarding the space field” – though not if the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives can help it….

Chung-yue Chang, professor of philosophy at Montclair State University, writes in the Chinese government’s English-language news source China Daily, “Let 2012 be [the] year of cooperation.”

“The year 2011 is significant for China in many ways…. This year China became the world’s second largest economy, and the world’s third nation to launch a space station program of its own design…. 2012, the Chinese Year of the Long, or the divine Chinese dragon -a legendary combination of snake, phoenix, fish, tiger and deer – is expected to bring about auspicious changes…. Reform and opening-up will be deepened, the transformation of the economic development pattern will gain pace, and the construction of a moderately prosperous (xiaokang) society will intensify,” Chang forecasts. “Peace and harmony, the deep-rooted cultural value, has become China’s strategic guide for national and international development.”

Go ahead, read between the lines….

Luo Huaiyu, a Ph.D. candidate at Beijing Language and Culture University and a columnist for (“the authorized government portal site to China”) writes, “With the world’s strategic and economic center of gravity shifting to the Asia-Pacific region, China may need to reexamine its foreign policy strategy…. As the strategic importance of the Asia-Pacific region continues to increase, China should more explicitly emphasize its foreign policy priority shift to Asia, to its neighbors and the entire international community. Prioritizing Asia, while assuming a more active role in global affairs, will further establish China as a pragmatic and responsible world power and provide much-needed space for China’s sustainable growth.”


Have a happy, peaceful New Year! I’ll be back in 2012.


Physicists plumb depths of science & religion





On Tuesday evening December 6 I heard two physicists air their sharply diverging views on the supremacy of “science.” This prickly dialogue took place at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C., under the auspices of the association’s Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion (DOSER) program.

I’ve attended a number of DOSER programs over the past few years, and this was first I’ve been to that drew an overflow crowd. Presumably the draw was a best-selling author and media darling, Lisa Randall, a Harvard University physicist and author of best-selling popular-science books. Her latest is Knocking on Heaven’s Door; How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World.

Randall was paired in this dialogue with Ian Hutchinson, a physicist with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of Monopolizing Knowledge: A Scientist Refutes Religion-Denying, Reason-Destroying Scientism. The dialogue at this event was prickly throughout.

(Disclosure: I have not read either book. As of today, for what it’s worth, Randall’s book has an “Amazon best-seller rank” of 754. Hutchinson’s book has a rating of 1,789,704.)

According to Hutchinson, science can’t explain everything. (I agree.) Yet “scientistic” thinkers say it can, and does. (I define “scientism” as the belief that the scientific world view and the scientific method are the only ways of producing valid knowledge.) “The mass media reflect pervasive scientism,” and it’s scientistic thinking that underlies what he calls the “fundamentalist” atheism espoused by popular scientists/media figures such as biologist Richard Dawkins.

Hutchinson is the first natural scientist I’ve heard properly identify the social critique that became the focus of the so-called “science wars” of the 1990s as a critique of scientism, not a critique of science. His thesis is that science produces a certain sort of knowledge. Other approaches to knowing produce other sorts of knowledge, which are not scientific but are also valid. (During Q&A he was criticized for declining to define “knowledge”….)

Originally “science” meant knowledge, he said. Today “science” does not equal “knowledge.” Science today is typically defined as the study of the natural world. However, defining science as the study of nature is problematic because the concept of “nature” is ambiguous, as it has been for centuries. (A social constructivist such as myself would say that nature is a rhetorical construct.) Hutchinson proposed defining science functionally, by its key characteristics and strategies.

Randall began by describing art, religion, and science as three different approaches to “the sublime,” which she defined as “beautiful and scary stuff.” I have to confess I was left wondering what she meant…. Her scientistic bent showed, at least to me, in various ways, such as talking of “science versus religion” and claiming that ultimately scientists “want The truth to come out.” She observed that it’s currently “portrayed” – by whom? I wondered – “as embarrassing or quaint” for scientists “to be earnest about facts or logic.” She also claimed that “really rational thinking (is) under attack” in politics.  (My reaction? So what else is new?)

During Q&A a Dominican monk asked Randall, How do you know when the materialistic world view fails? Her fuzzy response hinted,to me that she doesn’t think the materialistic world view has any limits.

Overall I found Hutchinson engaging and Randall unimpressive. I was especially unimpressed by Randall’s rapid-fire, partly mumbled speaking style – not very audience-friendly.

A postdoctoral student I know with a Ph.D. in the natural sciences had a different experience of the dialogue. She, like some audience members, was critical of Hutchinson’s failure to provide a definition of “knowledge.” As a social scientist, I’ll observe that what “knowledge” is depends on who you are and where and when you live and a whole slew of other contingencies. Go chew on that for a while!