Jeffrey LewisZhang Liying: China's Missile Gal

Can’t anybody in the US intelligence community speak Chinese?

Gregory Kulacki—the man who caught DIA repeating a hoax about a parasite microsatellite that was posted on a Chinese bulletin board—has caught another US intelligence entity just making shit up.

Well, actually, leaving shit out.

Challenges to Space Superiority, published by the National Air and Space Intelligence Center at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, highlights two quotations by “Liying Zhan” of the “Langfang Army Missile Academy” to suggest that China will “threaten on-orbit assets.”

Gregory tracked down the original article (here is the article in Chinese) after I noticed the quotes seemed, well, too good to be true.

Turns out, I was right. The term “translation” is less appropriate than, say, “distorted hack job.”

The quotes are from: Zhang Liying (张莉英), Zhang Qixin (张启信) and Wang Hui (王辉), “Fan Weixing Wuqi Jishu Ji Fangyu Cuoshi Qianxi,” (反卫星武器技术及防御措施浅析) Feihang Daodan (飞航导弹) 3 (2004) 28-30.

Yes, NASIC incorrectly Romanized her surname (Zhang, 张) and dropped her two co-authors. Those are relatively minor omissions compared to the travesty that ensued.


NASIC splashed a quote from Zhang et al across page 16 to suggest China will be fighting “space wars”:

In future space wars, the main operations will consist of destructive satellite attacks and counterattacks, as well as jamming and antijamming operations.”

This is just a fragment of a much longer sentence about a phrase less evocative than “space war” that Gregory translated as “space conflict”: (空间对抗). The paragraph is really just an obvious statement that satellites are important, which makes them a target. Here is Gregory’s take:

In future space conflicts, satellites can provide around the clock, all-weather, near-real time, global battlefield information for which there is no substitute; therefore, damaging satellites and protecting them from damage, interfering with satellites and protecting them from interference, destroying satellites and protecting them from destruction, will become a principle element of future space conflict.

The first paragraph of Zhang et al is identical in sentiment to the first paragraph in the introduction Challenges to Space Superiority, which hazards the following earth-shattering observation:

Space capabilities are integral to modern warfighting forces, providing critical surveillance and reconnaissance information, as well as command, control and communications capabilities. Access to space also provides the warfighter weather observations and precision positioning, timing and navigation. This reliance on space makes US space-related assets a primary target for adversaries and terrorists. An adversary can attack ground networks or satellites, jam satellite communications or satellite navigation receiver, spoof satellite signals, and conduct virus attacks. The deception, disruption, denial, degradation, or destruction of space systems and/or services could seriously affect US warfighting capabilities.


That was a little exaggeration from NASIC. The real fun begins on page 21, where NASIC quotes Zhang et al to suggest China “will … actively develop” ASATs:

China will monitor closely foreign developments in advanced satellite technology, paying close attention to progress made in military use of space while actively developing ASAT systems.”

The original paragraph simply does not say that. Instead, it notes that ASAT research is one of a number of factors—including foreign space developments and progress in arms control—that will determine a future Chinese policy choice. Here is Gregory’s take:

Satellites will be the most important space system in the 21st century quest for space control; attacking enemy satellites and protecting friendly satellites are the primary missions of a space conflict. In order to gain the advantage in space to protect national security, the competition between anti-satellite weapons and defensive satellite measures will become ever more intense. While correctly following foreign advanced satellite technology, anti-satellite weapons should be actively developed, and the progress in international space arms control paid close attention to, to facilitate the timely determination of a response.

NASIC commits three substantative distortions:

  • NASIC omits Zhang et al’s use of “should”—as in “ought to, but not necessarily will”—leaving the impression that she is claiming that China will develop ASATs.
  • NASIC translates “arms control” (军备控制) as “military use of space” which completley obscures the implication that Zhang et al might favor eschewing ASATs in exchange for an arms control agreement.
  • NASIC omits the last clause, which suggests that these factors will lead to a future decision. NASIC implies China’s course is set, but the last two characters dui ce (对策) refer to a policy response to the actions of others.

The result is a totally different paragraph. In Chinese, Zhang et al propose that China watch foreign developments, conduct ASAT research and pay close attention to arms control negotiations in order to make a future decision. They advocate hedging, not building ASATs.

Admittedly, translating Chinese is hard. I can’t do it. Gregory and I talked for a while about the last sentence of the second quote from Zhang et al, which has no subject. This is common in Chinese. In the end, he decided to use the passive voice and alter the word order instead of adding a subject.

Word order is a legitimate choice for a translator. Changing “should” to “will” or omitting an entire clause is not.


All of this sidesteps the big question: Who is Zhang Liying?

She is a lecturer at the Langfang Army Missile Academy.

Gregory and I showed the article to a couple of space scientists at the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics (Beihang)—the guys who would “actively develop” any ASATs. They had a good giggle, before pointing out that, until recently, the Langfang Army Missile Academy was the equivalent of a community college.

Langfang wanted to merge with Beihang, but Beihang balked. Asked if Langfang was that bad, the guys from Beihang suggested the article was a pretty typical example of the mediocre standards at Langfang.

The same might be said about Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

Zhang has also written an article on the use of nanotechnology in solid rocket boosters, so any day now NASIC will issue a report warning of the growing threat from Chinese nanobots.

Big ups to Michael Katz-Hyman for some trans-Pacific help at a crucial moment.


  1. dylan (History)

    How can you turn the phrase “anti-satellite weapons should be actively developed” into the nice bland statement “conduct ASAT research”? You’re just as guilty as the American air force of slanting things to suit your agenda. What should they do, ignore the existence of this and numerous other open source articles advocating the development of ASAT weapons? Pretend that Chinese scientists aren’t openly discussing the need to shut down the US satellite system? In what sense would that encourage a realistic appraisal of whether arms control or arms development would be a better bet?

  2. Jeffrey Lewis (History)


    Gregory and I spoke with several people about the characters that he translated as “actively develop.”

    The phrase is pretty bland in Chinese. It doesn’t correspond to a specific phase in military investment (as it does in English). It could easily mean research, which seems consistent with the focus on other factors leading to a decision.

    You’re foolish to compare a summary (which makes a judgment about the meaning of a word) with distortions of the actual text like changing “should’ to “will” or “arms control” to the “military use of space”

  3. Gregory Kulacki (History)

    My problem with the current American discussion of China’s military space programs is that it is based on poor information. I suppose one could say that the authors of the NASIC report deserve some credit for turning to an academic journal instead of a Hong Kong tabloid or a PLA editorial, but authors like Ms. Zhang, a junior faculty member at a small army college, cannot tell us very much about China’s capabilities or intentions.

    It is also disturbing to discover that the authors of the report were either not able to understand what they reading, or, more likely, that they intentionally distorted Ms. Zhang’s conclusions.

    We should expect more from our intelligence community. The authors of this report should be identified and held responsible. If you really care about this issue, you should bring this to the attention of your elected representatives.

  4. Mark Gubrud (History)

    Chinese militarists, prompted in no small part by the writings of American militarists and by the actual military programs and policies of the United States, are thinking and talking about and doing some actual work on space weapons. If the US continues on its present aggressive course of space weaponization, China and other powers will surely follow.

    Meanwhile, China’s official policy remains, along with Russia and most of the rest of the world, firmly committed to pursuing possibilities for space arms control, in sharp contrast with American policy which rejects and refuses to even discuss space arms control.

    There is no contradiction between these aspects of the situation; one does not belie the other. If we opt for a space arms race, we will get one; if we opt to pursue space arms control, there is every reason to think it is achievable; certainly nothing in the postures of our major potential competitors suggests otherwise.

    Arguments about the subtle semantics of articles by Chinese militarists prove very little in relation to these essential and obvious truths.

  5. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    The tone of Zhang et al suggests the authors are not militarists, as well as their concern China might be too passive.

    Zhang et al fear that China is eschewing even basic research, despite developments in the US. They advocate hedging, not full-scale development.

    The implication is that the spectrum of mainstream debate in China does not extend to space hawks. I am not sure, therefore, a space race would ensure, even “if we opt for” one.

    At least, not for some time.

    Had NASIC translated the article properly, they would have found evidence that the international environment is relatively stable and robust.

  6. Jonathan Brasher

    Speaking to Dylan’s point, while I agree that Zhang et al. don’t appear to have a militaristic bent, wouldn’t the term “yanzhi” have more of a connotation of active R&D, as opposed to “yanjiu” for just research (which Zhang et al. also use)? While it may not carry as much weight as the English phrase “actively develop,” it still seems weightier than “conduct research.” And considering their saying that this development is a strategic goal of every nation (including China), I would think “conduct research” a bit light. But then again, I’m just an interested dilettante.

    And again, one must consider the source to determine if we should give credence to these views, anyway.

    Speaking of which, are some of the passages you quote beyond the first page of the article? Could you possibly make the whole original article available?

    [The original article is available in the text. The link is:

  7. Stephen Moore (History)

    I noticed that the recently published assessment of China’s military power states that China ‘plans to field’ ASAT weapons presumably ones beyond the crude nuclear-armed ballistic missile type:

    China is working on, and plans to field, ASAT systems. Beijing has and will continue to enhance its satellite tracking and identification network – the first step in establishing a credible ASAT capability. China can currently destroy or disable satellites only by launching a ballistic missile or space-launch vehicle armed with a nuclear weapon. However, there are many risks associated with this method, and consequences from use of nuclear weapons. China is also conducting research to develop ground-based laser ASAT weapons. Based on the level of Chinese interest in this field, the Defense Intelligence Agency believes Beijing eventually could develop a laser weapon capable of damaging or destroying satellites. At lower power thresholds, Chinese researchers may believe that low-energy lasers can “blind” sensors on low-Earth-orbiting satellites; whether Beijing has tested such a capability is unclear.

    Is there evidence China has conducted the kind of test alluded to in the final clause?