China's first atomic bomb test, 1964 | Commons
China's first atomic bomb test, 1964 | Commons
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In his capacity as CSC chairman, Zhou Enlai directly supervised the preparations for China’s first nuclear test. In April 1964, the CSC established a command department (zhihui bu) headed by Zhang Aiping. From this point forward, Zhang’s main task was to manage the preparations for the test of China’s first device, reporting directly to Zhou. In August 1964, Zhang, along with Liu Xiyao, vice minister of the Second Ministry, supervised a pretest (yuyan) of all components that would be used in the actual test. Zhou instructed Zhang to report the results of this test to him directly, using a special telephone line that had been established to link the test site with Zhou’s office.

Following the success of these pretests, Zhou convened the ninth meeting of the CSC. On September 16 and 17, the commission then debated the timing of the actual test. One group favored testing earlier, in October 1964, while another group favored testing later, in the spring of 1965. He then reported the options to Liu Shaoqi and Mao Zedong, who would make the final decision.

Mao favored testing sooner rather than later, stating that “since it will scare people, let’s do it earlier.” Although the original plan called for testing in early October, the date was changed to mid-October so that it would not overlap with the presence of foreign dignitaries who would be visiting for China’s national day.

Secrecy regarding the test offers another indication of party control over China’s nuclear program. Zhou instructed that the timing of the test would only be known by members of the Politburo Standing Committee, the two vice-chairmen of the CMC, and Peng Zhen: a total of eight people. Zhou also devised code words to be used for the test. The bomb would be called “Miss Qiu” (qiu xiaojie), the testing tower as the “dressing table” (shuzhuangtai), and the fuse or detonator as the “braid” (shubianzi).

To maintain secrecy, Zhang Aiping communicated with Zhou Enlai through Zhang’s assistant, Li Xuge. When an updated weather report threatened to disrupt the test, Zhang dispatched Li to Beijing to inform Zhou Enlai and propose delaying the test until a window of good weather between October 15 and 20. Zhou agreed and then sent the report to Mao Zedong, Liu Shaoqi, Lin Biao, Deng Xiaoping, Peng Zhen, He Long, Nie Rongzhen, and Luo Ruiqing to review; they approved the changes.

When the test occurred, Zhang reported the results directly to Zhou Enlai, using a direct phone link that had been established at China’s testing facility in Lop Nor. After the successful test of China’s first atomic device, top party leaders continued to dominate the development of China’s nuclear weapons. Soon after the first test, Zhou Enlai informed Zhang Aiping and Liu Xiyao that “the center” (zhongyang) had decided on the following plan for developing China’s strategic weapons: to conduct an air-drop test in 1965, to test a missile with a nuclear warhead in 1966, and to test a hydrogen bomb in 1967.

Formulation of China’s nuclear policy

China’s approach to nuclear weapons distinguishes between nuclear policy and nuclear strategy. China’s nuclear policy (he zhengce) refers to national policy positions adopted after the successful test in October 1964.

These policies established the parameters for China’s nuclear strategy and force posture, which highlights the role of top party leaders in determining nuclear strategy. China’s nuclear strategy (he zhanlue) refers to more specific operational questions and cannot violate the main tenets of the policy, such as not using nuclear weapons first. China’s top party leaders, especially Mao and Zhou, determined China’s nuclear policy, which remains influential today.

A statement issued after China successfully tested its first nuclear device introduced China’s nuclear policy. Reflecting the dominant role of top party leaders, the document was entitled “Statement of the Government of the People’s Republic of China.”

Since 1949, the use of government statements (zhengfu shengming) to announce policy decisions is relatively rare, underscoring the authoritativeness of its content. The key phrase was: “The Chinese government solemnly declares that China at any time and under any circumstances will not be the first to use nuclear weapons.” The statement indicated that China had developed nuclear weapons for defensive purposes (“China’s development of nuclear weapons is for defense and for protecting the Chinese people from U.S. threats to launch nuclear war”), and that China would not attack nonnuclear weapons states with nuclear weapons and would pursue complete disarmament.

China’s nuclear policy has influenced the development of China’s nuclear strategy in several ways. First, in the hierarchy of China’s military science, military strategy is defined as serving broader national political goals. In the nuclear realm, China’s nuclear policy outlines these political goals and defines the essential purposes of China’s nuclear weapons. Moreover, changing these political goals lies beyond the purview of military leaders and is an issue reserved for top party leaders.

Second, the party created clear guidelines for China’s nuclear strategy. Put simply, the no-first-use pledge determined that China’s nuclear forces would adopt a retaliatory posture (because China would not use nuclear weapons first) and would need to create a force that would be capable of surviving an initial nuclear attack to be able to retaliate. Not only does China’s nuclear policy reflect the dominance of top party leaders in China’s approach to nuclear weapons. Morever, it has also constrained China’s subsequent nuclear strategy and force development.

Third, the policy explains the overriding emphasis on survivability in China’s force development, reflected first in the decision to base the bulk of China’s nuclear forces in tunnels and silos, and then the desire to add mobile components, with road-mobile missile systems and submarine launched ballistic missiles. China’s top party leaders formulated China’s nuclear policy.

On October 11, 1964, Zhou Enlai began to draft the statement that would be issued with China’s first test. To discuss the content of the statement, he gathered officials from the MFA, CSC, and GSD. On October 13, Zhou supervised the drafting of the statement. Assisting him was Wu Lengxi (editor of the People’s Daily), Qiao Guanhua (deputy minister of foreign affairs), and Yao Qin (deputy director of the propaganda department). Zhou described what he wanted the statement to cover and a draft was completed later that day.

On October 14, Zhou submitted the draft to top party leaders for their approval, including Mao Zedong, Liu Shaoqi, Lin Biao, Deng Xiaoping, Peng Zhen, and He Long. The effect of China’s nuclear policy is perhaps most evident in the 1996 Science of Second Artillery Strategy. Overall, the text mentions “no-first-use” eighteen times and China’s “nuclear policy” twenty-six times. The terms are used to establish the parameters for the Second Artillery’s use of nuclear weapons.

The text states, for example, that “our country’s policy of not using nuclear weapons first determines that the Second Artillery must adopt the principle of ‘gaining control by striking afterwards’ [houfa zhiren].” Furthermore, “only after an enemy nuclear state attacks us can the Second Artillery resolutely conduct a nuclear counterattack according to the order of the Central Military Commission.”

Likewise, the text notes that “the Second Artillery will strictly abide by our country’s nuclear policy of no-first-use to develop and employ nuclear missile forces.” In short, China’s nuclear policy influences and constrains the key elements of strategy: when China will use nuclear weapons and how it will do so.

Excerpted from Active Defense: China’s Military Strategy Since 1949 by M. Taylor Fravel. Copyright © 2019 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission.

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