The Legacy Of Zheng He

I've occasionally gotten emails asking me what I think about the Chinese space program.

Now, I'm prompted to respond, with this story about supposed plans to extend the Middle Kingdom to Luna, complete with resource extraction.

Well, I sincerely hope that they do so. If they do, there's at least a possibility that it will shake us from our continued complacency toward serious civil space policy in this country. That's not to say that I hope that we'll immediately drop everything and head back to the Moon a la Apollo, but that at least we'll have a useful national discussion about it, which hasn't happened in decades.

Iin addition, it will set up some actual precedents for determining what the Outer Space Treaty really means with regard to issues of property rights and sovereignty, which may clarify things in that regard. Actually having a recognized legal regime in place can't hurt private investment prospects, even if it's seemingly restrictive. Even a restrictive policy is probably preferable to the current uncertainty, particularly given all the other uncertainties (technical, regulatory, market) with which investors have to deal in considering space ventures.

But I don't expect it to happen soon. At least in space, the Chinese don't have much of a track record technologically, as the article itself points out. It's a government program, with all of the attendant problems. We got away with it with Apollo, because it was considered to be critical to the national security, and we solved many problems by simply throwing money at them.

I don't think that the Chinese have that luxury, even under a dictatorship. In addition to their technical difficulties, their economy doesn't have great prospects right now, and the temporary domestic peace, bought by literally crushing the dissidents in Tiananmen Square 13 years ago, is a fragile one. The leadership knows that they continue in power only because they've brought some economic gains to the nation. If those are seen to be faltering, and they're perceived to be squandering precious resources on lunar pie in the sky, the country could be ripe for a revolt, and they are acutely aware of it.

The other thing that concerns me is their stated reason for doing it.

Correspondents say China's main motivation for space exploration is to raise national prestige, both at home and overseas.

During the Ming Dynasty, under the leadership of the eunuch Admiral Zheng He (also spelled Cheng Ho, and not to be confused with the Big He), the Chinese had the most advanced nautical technology in the world, with ships larger than anything being built in Europe at the time.

The admiral built over 1,600 multi-masted ships, and sent them out, laden with treasure, throughout the world. About a hundred years prior to the European Age of Discovery, he made several expeditions with these ships, probably reaching Europe itself. In the early 1400s, China seemed on the verge of extending a colonial empire to most of the known world at that time. Obviously, it failed to do so.

The story of the Ming Dynasty is often used as a cautionary tale by space activists, as they warn us, and our government, of the dangers of a failure of vision and imagination. In this version of the story, the Chinese were on the verge of opening up the trade routes to India, and Africa, and points further east, and could have preempted the Portuguese explorations, by establishing their own beachheads and colonies decades earlier.

But the Mandarin bureaucrats in the Forbidden City could see no value in these voyages and, needing resources for problems at home (building dikes and other flood control, and the like), cut off the funding for Zheng He, ordered him home, had the ships burned, and made the construction of a deep-water ship of more than three masts a capital offense.

Similarly, some have argued that in essentially turning our backs on the cosmos after the rapid success of Apollo, in favor of welfare programs and pork, our own politicians have given us a similar failure of vision.

But that draws the wrong conclusion. The fact was that Zheng He's journeys were a failure. They sent out vast amounts of the nations' treasure with which to impress the heathens and gain tribute and the appropriate respect (just as is the goal for the current Chinese space activities). But when trade occurred at all, the ships often came back with items that were perceived to be of less value than what had been sent out to the ports. The trade was not profitable — it was draining vital resources. The bureaucrats were right.

The Chinese suffered a failure of expansionary will 600 years ago because they were doing it for the wrong reasons. And I suspect that the current leadership is similar to Zheng He in their outlook. His missions were for national prestige — not the generation of wealth — as, apparently, are the current Chinese space plans.

As was America's Apollo program.

Space will not be settled by governments, whether Chinese, Russian, or American. It will be settled by the people who want to go, and seek their own opportunities, and dreams. Governments can help, and if the Chinese government can navigate the difficulties I describe above, and actually eventually get to the Moon, that might be one way of helping, not just the Chinese, but as the article states, all who want to go. But I suspect that there will be private activities that beat them to it, and we cannot, and should not, count on Beijing.

We will know that things are moving forward seriously in space when, in addition to remote-sensing and communications satellites, there are activities going on in space, involving humans in space, that bring more value back than is put into them. Unfortunately, communist goverments (which China's remains, despite propaganda to the contrary) are not notable for their value-added activities, and I don't think that the present Beijing regime is that far removed from its predecessors, either in the Ming Dynasty, or the Mao Dynasty.

But I hope they'll prove me wrong.


Last week's column apparently didn't get anyone's blood boiling, postively or negatively — I got very little email on it. But I hope that it was uplifting anyway. That was the intent — I can't complain about the lack of progress all the time.

I hope that I've gotten people stirred up a little more this week.

Rand Simberg is a recovering aerospace engineer and a consultant in space commercialization, space tourism and Internet security. He offers occasionally biting commentary about infinity and beyond at his Web log, Transterrestrial Musings.

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