China's first atomic test on October 16, 1964, in Xinjiang. Mao wanted to prove the nation was a global power. Photo: SCMP Pictures

The day China entered the nuclear age

Fifty years ago, the world woke up to news the nation - then at odds with Moscow and Washington - had detonated its own atomic bomb

Fifty years ago yesterday, China detonated its first atomic bomb, joining the United States, Soviet Union, Britain and France as the only nuclear powers at the time.

The explosion in Lop Nur in eastern Xinjiang paved the way for the nation's further development of nuclear weapons and its emergence as a world power, analysts say.

China followed up with its first hydrogen bomb test in 1967 and launched its first satellite in 1970 - dubbed the "two bombs and one satellite campaign" by Mao Zedong .

"The nuclear weapons project was launched when China was entering the most difficult period, but … it helped China win a strategic position and [bargaining power] in the international community in the 1960s," Xu Guangyu , a retired PLA major general, said.

Professor Jonathan Holslag, head of research at the Brussels Institute of Contemporary China Studies, said the test came at a tense time, with the nation locked in a stand-off with the Soviet Union and the United States.

"Even if Mao had dismissed nuclear weapons as paper tigers, they were an indispensable deterrent against the two superpowers and an important symbol of China's long-term goal of becoming a powerful nation," Holslag said.


The cost of the programme was about 2.8 billion yuan - about double what the Korean war cost the nation, according to the , a magazine published by state-owned China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation.

"China's detonation of an atomic bomb in 1964 resulted primarily from Mao's anger at the break with the Soviet Union ... [but it] also reflected Mao's drive to demonstrate China's status as a global power," said Professor Bernard Cole of the National War College in Washington.

"China had long been considered a great power - a position led by US president Franklin D. Roosevelt, who in 1944 said that after the end of world war two, the world would be led by the 'four policemen': the US, the UK, the Soviet Union and China."

Antony Wong Dong, a military specialist in Macau, said China's nuclear bomb was a political rather than strategic project as the tests were conducted in the aftermath of the cold war.

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"When the tests of atomic and hydrogen bombs were [taking place] … millions of mainland Chinese were dying from starvation in the aftermath of so-called Great Leap Forward before the chaotic Cultural Revolution," Wong said.


"We still don't know the exact cost of the bomb projects for China - in terms of resources and lives - because so much of that type of information remains classified."

At least 70 workers died in December, 1974 in an accident at the 816 underground nuclear plant - at the time a top-secret military facility - in Chongqing's Fuling district, China Central Television reported last month.


Last month, Xinhua published an article praising Deng Jiaxian, the "father" of China's atomic and hydrogen bombs, for his role in the country's nuclear defence project. Deng died in 1986 from cancer following long-term exposure to radiation.

Besides Deng, others made great contributions to China's nuclear development, including Qian Xuesen , who helped the US Department of Defence set up its first ballistic missile programme. He returned to China in 1955 during the anti-communist witch-hunt led by senator Joseph McCarthy.

"China's recent achievements in middle and long-range missiles build on the efforts of Deng, Qian and other scientists," Wong said, citing the Dongfeng-41, whose 12,000km range allows it to hit anywhere in the US, and the Dongfeng-21D that Beijing claims can strike American aircraft carriers well out into the Pacific.


Xu said China would not attempt to become the world's third nuclear superpower because of the high risks and unknown development cost.

"China will just keep a certain numbers of nuclear warheads … enough for a nuclear deterrent," he said, adding that it would keep its pledge never to be the first to use nuclear weapons.

In 1992, China acceded to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which was established in 1968. Western military analysts said they believed China would abide by the treaty.


"[China] now mostly tries to increase the accuracy and survivability of its nuclear weapons," Holslag said.

"A nuclear war is almost unthinkable, but nuclear weapons could prove to be important to keep the US at bay in case of a non-nuclear conflict with, say, Taiwan or Japan."

Chiang asked U.S. to support attack

Chiang Kai-shek, then the president of the Republic of China, planned a preemptive strike on the mainland's nuclear facilities in 1964, fearing an attack from Beijing a week after the Communists under Mao Zedong successfully carried out a nuclear test, newly declassified US official documents show.

Chiang sought support for the plan from US president Lyndon Johnson but was convinced by Washington to give up the idea. Chiang and his Nationalist forces fled the mainland to Taiwan following their defeat by Mao in 1949. According to US documents, Chiang met senior American officials shortly after the mainland conducted its first nuclear test on October 16, 1964.

According to the documents, Chiang on October 24 told a top CIA official stationed in Taiwan the "primary [Chinese Communist] aim was to destroy" him and the government of the Republic of China (ROC) and "when this happened all of Asia would be threatened".

"It would be useless" to support the ROC "once it [was] destroyed," he was quoted as telling the US official. Meanwhile, an official telegram on October 29 addressed to US secretary of state David Rusk from the American envoy to the island wrote, the "President argues, therefore, that only solution to present situation is for early ROC action against mainland". "Consequently, Chiang's early reaction has emphasised desirability of us backing ROC attempt to sabotage nuclear production facilities of Communist China," the telegram also said. The US, however, rejected Chiang's plan, fearing supporting such a move may provoke retaliatory attacks on its forces in Asia.


This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: The day China entered the nuclear club