The Dragon Flying High? Examining China's Aerospace Industry: The Maoist Era

Deba R. Mohanty, Associate Fellow, IDSA


The last decade of the last millennium has witnessed a visible shift in international attention towards global security—it has more or less become a China-centric discussion, be it trade, economy, or security. In turn, especially after the fall of the Berlin Wall, or dissolution of the former Soviet Union, security analysts among others, have been focusing extensively on the modernisation of not only the Chinese society at large, but more importantly of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) in particular. The general concern is not wholly unfounded, rather it is a product of the contemporary security scenario in which a modern, assertive China has evidently tried to flex its muscles—be it in the form of import of sophisticated weaponry especially from Russia and elsewhere, or moves in Myanmar or South China Sea, or its coercive tactics against Taiwan, or perhaps most important of all, its strong economic indicators. All these taken together, give visible indications that the Chinese society is in transition. If this is so, then it becomes clear that the components of this society are also in transition. Foremost among them is the military modernisation agenda of the Chinese who, it is fairly assumed by the international community, are going to have a dominant say in the international security field. In other words, the future security scenario in the next decade or two will be shaped in a fashion where the place of China almost seems likely to be in the top four.

Given the closed nature of the Chinese military establishment and its still low level of transparency, it is difficult for analysts to assess accurately the parameters and extent of modernisation and reforms that have either taken place or are in the Chinese mind for the future of the PLA. Serious examination has been going on for quite some time—Western analysts more or less have been able to know quite a bit about the PLA's arsenal but it is still difficult to know fully not only of the existing weaponry or research and development (R&D) accompanying it, but also broader issues related to politics, decision-making, training and preparedness, doctrine and tactics, threat perceptions, and worldview. Such an extensive examination, due to the vastness of a military institution like the PLA and complex internal and external factors impinging upon it, has to be examined both at micro and macro levels, with the former as an input and the latter as an output. To begin with, the vastness of the PLA has thus to be compartmentalised into smaller and still smaller components so that a series of serious research based information can emerge. In this research endeavour the role of the Chinese aerospace industry is examined which along with the naval industry forms perhaps the most formidable base for not only the People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) in particular, but the PLA in general. Two reasons are cited here for such an endeavour. First, a micro level analysis of the aerospace industry of China is important due to the fact that the post-Gulf War era has more or less forced the Chinese to contemplate on the effectiveness of their air power which has worried them most for the last four decades or so. If the recent emphasis on modernisation and enhanced effectiveness of the Air Force is any indication, examination of the whole aerospace industry assumes immense importance in this context. And second, such an effort will be of help in understanding the Chinese model of development as well as help policy makers with additional inputs in formulating their plans. To start with, a closer look at the historical development of the Chinese aerospace industry is discussed.

Historical Glimpses

The Chinese have a long history of manned flights. Literature related to Chinese aviation can be traced back to the 7th century BC. The Chinese were interested in the beauty of aviation and on numerous occasions had experimented with it. This is evident from the fact that long before the PLAAF was established (formally) on November 11, 1949, experiments of several types of aviation had been carried out in the preceding decades although the warfare system was still land-centric in nature. The earliest era of Chinese aviation tactics consisted of kites of various sizes that were useful for military applications.1 They also developed hot air balloons and the so called "Chinese Gyro", or bamboo dragon-fly, that predicated the modern lifting propeller through mechanical lift achieved by a horizontal spinning of a bamboo strip.2 Though slow to adopt, these were also useful for military applications. The recorded Chinese aviation history having military applications is more than one and a half millenia old.3 However, nothing much happened till late 19th century. The real modern effort began during the late Qing dynasty.

The pre-1911 revolution period witnessed, a successful experiment with manned hydrogen balloons. Credit for this goes to Hua Hengfang, associated with Tanjian Army School, who designed this balloon in 1887. In 1910, the Qing government established an aircraft manufacturing plant at Nanyuan. This plant produced the first aircraft and flew it in 1911. Though this test flight was a failure, it nevertheless brought about a change in the Chinese aviation history. It is during this time that the need for an aviation industry was felt and the second decade of the 20th century was credited with the creation of China's first air force by Sun Yat-sen. Establishment of an aviation school and aircraft repair factory at Nanyuan in 1913 was soon followed by the establishment of a series of repair facilities at Qinghe, Beijing, and various other places in China. It seems that Sun Yat-sen's famous slogan of "saving the nation with aviation" had already taken off. Aircraft became the weapon of choice in the nationalist government's ongoing campaigns against various warlord factions.

The Nationalist government is given credit for the enthusiastic initiation of a comprehensive aviation programme. Of importance to note here is that the present PLAAF traces its origin to the year 1924. Two individuals—Chang Qiankun and Wang Bi—are regarded as its founding fathers. During the first Kuomintang and Chinese Communist Party (CCP) united front in 1924, Sun Yat-sen established an aviation bureau and a military flying school at the Huangpu Military Academy. The first batch of the flying school had nearly 50 students, eighteen of whom (including Chang and Wang) were sent to the Soviet Union for advanced flight training from 1925 to 1927. The Soviet Union during the formative years of the ambitious Chinese aviation programme, was instrumental in not only helping establish the structure but also providing arms and advisors, including financial support, at least till the early 1940s.4

Although China barely had the capability to develop and produce aircraft before the Communist takeover in 1949, development during the preceding years, especially the 1930s and 1940s, are worth examining in order to get a glimpse of what it looked like. Establishment of a number of aviation facilities at Hanzhou, Shanghai, Nanjing and Wuchang by the Kuomintang government was undertaken during the early 1930s. These factories were capable of aircraft repair and activities related to aircraft production. Most of these factories were set up with foreign technical assistance from the US and West European countries. For example, the Central Hanzhou Aircraft Factory was a joint venture with the United Continental Inc. of the United States.5 The Central Nanchan Aircraft Factory was established jointly with Italian firms for licensed production of aircraft. The Shaoguan Aircraft Factory was jointly run with Curtis Wright Inc. of the United States. The Airforce No. 3 Aircraft Factory was established at Chengdu. Another factory was established in the Guizhou province for production of American piston engines. It is reasonably clear by now that the nascent stage of the Chinese aviation programme, among others, was marked more by foreign technical assistance than indigenous effort. Though the rudimentary infrastructure was fragile due to the turbulent pre-1949 years of war, aggression, and poor economic conditions, it nevertheless provided a crude platform to build its future aerospace programme.

The need for high level technological expertise in order to excel in such a sophisticated branch of natural sciences made the Chinese contemplate on long-term human resource capitalisation. During the 1930s, a number of students went abroad, especially to the United States and the Soviet Union, to study aviation. By the early 1940s, their number exceeded one thousand Prominent among these students were Qian Xuesen, better known as the father of the Chinese space and missiles programme,6 Wu Zhoughua, the inventor of the three-dimensional machine blades; and Wang Zhu, an aircraft engineer at the Boeing Company who later returned to China to help establish its modern aerospace industry.

Till the late 1940s, China barely had the capability to produce aircraft on its own, although elementary aeronautical engineering research had already been carried out in a few universities with crude experimental facilities. During the preceding decade, aviation engineering programmes were established at Beiyang University, Central University, Central Industrial College, Qinghua University, Sichuan University, and Northwest Polytechnic College. Low speed wind tunnels were constructed at the Central University and the Aviation Research Institute at the Qinghua University. A large wind tunnel was also built at Nanchang in 1939. This became a full-fledged research centre within two years with the addition of various wind tunnel facilities. The China Aviation Engineering Society was established in 1934 with Qian Changzuo as its chairman. The year 1949 saw the formation of an Aviation Engineers Society at Nanjing. The period under study is said to have produced more than one thousand graduate engineers from these premier centres.

It is not difficult to note the features and trends of the pre-Communist Chinese aviation history. First, there was a marked difference between the pre-modern aviation programme (pre-1911 period) which was mostly inventive-experimental in nature, and the post-1911 phase, till the proclamation of the PRC, which was more experimental-operational, laying emphasis on experiment, operation, and most importantly, crude forms of research and development. It should be noted here that it is not a matter of debate as to how efficient the infrastructure was, but nevertheless it may be argued that this phase laid down the foundation for a continued programme in the Communist period. Second, for the first time in the Chinese history of warfare, aircraft became a weapon of choice that significantly added to tactics like joint operations with the land forces and even single air operations during the pre-Communist period. Although China did not produce an aircraft of its own till the early 1950s, aircraft were nonetheless used by the KMT government. This indeed was a major contributor to Sun Yat-sen's idea of "saving the nation with aviation". Third, technological sophistication which haunts the Chinese even today vis-à-vis the West, was moderate due to lack of resources for both infrastructure and R&D dependence on foreign technology was thus one important option for the Chinese who received massive Soviet aid and tried their best to borrow as much foreign technology as possible from various sources during this period. This trend continued for a very long time even after the establishment of the PRC. It is difficult to say whether indigenous effort suffered solely due to dependence on foreign capital and technology or not, yet it points to the fact that not enough was contemplated on this aspect. Neglect of an indigenous effort is one factor as to why pre-1949 China did not succeed in establishing a major independent aviation industry. And last, it is important to note that many of the facilities, both in infrastructure and R&D, formed the basis for modern Chinese aerospace effort. The case of the evolution of the contemporary Beijing Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics is an important example that traces its origin to several pre-revolutionary institutions like Qinghua University, Beiyang University, Northwest Institute of Technology, Yunnan University, and others.7 A similar pattern of merger and upgrading of earlier establishments is also found in the history of other major education and training facilities.8 In brief, the history of modern Chinese aviation effort follows a pattern—link with the past being its primary connotation with is often invisible and hence confusing, thanks to the old Chinese habit of keeping secrets as prized possessions and mingling secrets with facts as misleading indicators.

The Maoist Era (1949-76)

The founding of the PRC on October 1, 1949, had in almost every way, facilitated the need for a modern aerospace industry, although it is still debated as to whether such a vision was either exclusively for socio-economic development or military modernisation, or both. Chinese literature available on the subject gives primacy to both socio-economic development and military preparedness, with the balance tilting towards the former. However, Western and other sources contest this argument and say that the basic aim of a modern aerospace industry in China, at least till the reforms began in the early 1980s, was primarily to produce for the military.9 Before such a complex issue is studied, it is important to examine the evolutionary and development pattern of this industry in detail.

A rudimentary infrastructure that was vulnerable to both external attacks especially by the Japanese and dismantlement by the Soviets and internal disruptions caused by the warring factions existed at the time when China became a People's Republic. Elementary research was carried out in a few universities. The plants built by the Japanese were dismantled during the Second World War. Efforts were made to consolidate captured Japanese and KMT aviation equipment and infrastructure including the buildings, airfields and skilled personnel during the post-War years. It is this effort that provided a nearly crippled infrastructure for the development of China's aircraft industry.10 This infrastructure also included a few aircraft repair factories from the earlier period. By 1949, only six aircraft repair factories had survived.11

China's aviation industry under Chairman Mao, which was later known as aerospace industry, was shaped by his revolutionary legacy, by frequent political upheavals, economic difficulties, technological backwardness, and most importantly, real or imaginary threat perceptions. It was also shaped with massive Soviet support in the context of the Cold War in general and the immediate Korean and Indo-China war in particular.12 If this was the background against which this industry was to take shape, it is not surprising that under Mao it primarily promoted military production while paying less attention to civilian needs. The nature of shaping up of such an industry, must ab-initio take the organisational structure into account. This leads us to examine the nature of the organisation that the Chinese built for their comprehensive aerospace programme.

Organisational Development

After the early 1950s, considerable shifts and alterations (both structural and organisational) have been witnessed in the case of both aircraft and aerospace related production. An Aviation Industry Preparatory Group, set up as early as 1950, within the Ministry of Heavy Industry, was reorganised in April 1951 as an Aviation Industry Bureau (AIB). In August 1952, aviation industry (along with ordnance) was transferred to a newly created Second Ministry of Machine Building (MMB). A Commission of Aviation Industry (CAI) was established in 1956 which was responsible for research, design, and production of aircraft and missiles. The Second MMB merged (again) with the First in February 1958. This MMB covered both military and civilian production. It is during this time that relations with the Soviet Union showed signs of deterioration and made the Chinese contemplate on developing their own aerospace effort. This was reflected in the organisational forms that saw the establishment of the Commission on Science and Technology for National Defence (COSTND) which incorporated the CAI. Important among recommendations made by the COSTND was centralisation of all military related R&D and the drive for quality control of military production. This resulted in the creation of a Third MMB in September 1960 that assumed responsibility for all defence industries from the First MMB. All research and design related to aircraft were combined three months later under an Aviation Research Academy, renamed in January as the Sixth Research Academy. To further increase efficiency and specialisation, military industries were split among three new MMBs (the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth) so that now the old Third MMB was responsible only for the aviation industry, including missiles. Supervision of the Sixth Research Academy was shifted from COSTND to the Third MMB, which now dealt exclusively with aircraft. This organisational structure remained virtually unchanged until the end of the Maoist era.

In sum, four important indicators of the development of the organisation are witnessed. First, the organisation as an evolutionary process took a long time to shape up. It was after more than one and a half decades that a ministry dealing exclusively with aviation was created. The formative years witnessed overlapping of structure as well as function. Second, the organisation was characterised by too frequent changes, a factor responsible for a visibly slow rate of growth, both in the case of evolutionary nature of the organisation as well as production. Third, perhaps due to the above reasons among others, the main objective of the Chinese to gain eventual self-sufficiency in aircraft production with domestic more than external help, took longer than it should have taken. And last, the relations with the Soviet Union impinged on the progress of the organisation in many ways. The evolution of the Chinese aviation industry, so heavily dependent on Soviet finance and technological help, received a serious blow during the end of the 1950s, and it was only after this that the Chinese became serious about self-reliance. The qualitative nature of this self sufficiency or reliance was not important, what was more desirable was a change in the Chinese mind towards self reliance—at this critical juncture, they may not have achieved what they desired but with this jolt they changed their attitude.

Infrastructure Development

It is important to study the infrastructure development as an evolving process. In March 1949, the Aviation Bureau of the Military Commission of the CCP was established. This was followed by the formation of PLAAF in November 1949. The first PLAAF commander, Liu Yialou, soon after assuming office, made a set of recommendations for the establishment, on a priority basis, of a modern aerospace infrastructure comprising major factories, training establishments, and research centres, that would be capable of producing large numbers of modern military aircraft. On April 17, 1951, China's aviation industry was officially founded. According to the "Resolution on the Construction of Aviation Industry," eighteen factories (sixteen from the Air Force and two from the Bureau of Weaponry Industry) were transferred to the AIB, together with 10,000 employees.13 By the end of the year, six major aircraft factories had been established/expanded: two in Harbin, two in Shenyang, one in Nanchang, and one in Zhuzhou. About 80 per cent of the personnel and 70 per cent of the equipment were concentrated in these factories. By the end of 1952, China's aviation industrial base already covered 13 factories with more than 30,000 employees.14

Massive Soviet assistance was perhaps the single most important contributor in this endeavour. The degree of this assistance can be traced back to the pre-1949 period.15 Soon after the PLAAF commander made his recommendations, Premier Zhou Enlai and Marshal Nie Rongzhen (then PLA Chief of Staff), along with others, negotiated for significant Soviet assistance in 1950. This protracted negotiation resulted in the October 1951 "Agreement of the USSR rendering technical assistance to PRC in organising repair of aircraft and engines and organising aircraft factories".16 This, along with a follow up agreement in May 1953 included massive Soviet financial and technical assistance for thirteen aviation industry projects in the areas of aircraft, aero engines and airborne equipment.17 The initial phase of China's aviation industry included the Shenyang Aircraft Factory and Shenyang Aero-engine Factory for jet fighters; the Harbin Aircraft Factory and Aero-engine Factory for bombers; the Nanchang Aircraft Factory and Zhuzhou Aero-engine Factory for piston type trainers; the Xian Aircraft Accessory Factory and Engine Accessory Factory; the Shaanxi Xinping Aviation Electronics Factory and Wheel Brake Accessory Factory; and the Baoji Aviation Instrument Factory. Most of these factories were expanded and rebuilt consequently. The Chinese willingness to import technology for reconstruction and expansion of these factories and the Soviet reluctance to do this has been declassified recently.18 While the Soviets urged the Chinese to be self-reliant at least on production facilities, the Chinese were eager to import technology and hence were more interested in short-term acquisitions rather than through the self-reliance process that was expensive and time consuming.

Dependence on the Soviet Union continued despite China's awareness of the need to organise maintenance and assembly plants and ultimately manufacture aircraft. During the first half of the 1950s, China imported the manufacturing technology of seven types of aircraft, nine types of engines, five types of tactical missiles, and several hundred types of airborne equipment from the Soviet Union. The First Five Year Plan (1953-57) saw 19 new aviation related factories. Almost all of them were located in major cities that had convenient transport facilities; accessibility to human, material, and energy resources; and good geological conditions. It is interesting to note that the new factories were built alongside the old ones, which allowed China to construct and produce simultaneously and to use the novel method of "one director for two factories".19 In addition to this, nearly one thousand Soviet aviation experts were working in China as well as hundreds of Chinese students were sent to the Soviet Union for higher training. In short, China seems to have taken advantage of Soviet assistance and combined theory with practice.

Preliminary assessment of the first decade of the People's Republic reveals that by 1958, the aviation industry had expanded at a very rapid pace. It had grown to include 42 organisations (out of which manufacturing enterprises numbered twenty nine) with some 3.55 million sq. m. of construction area and over 1,00,000 employees.20 By this time, China was able to produce piston engine trainers, transport aircraft and even jet fighters. Great effort was also made to recall/recruit Chinese aerospace professionals abroad to return to China.21 The AIB, during this period, was responsible for establishing research institutions like the Chinese Aeronautical Establishment, the Aeronautical Material Research Institute, the Aeronautical Science and Technology Information Institute, the Aeronautical Manufacturing Technology Research Institute, the Flight Test Research Institute, and the Aircraft Instruments Department. By the late 1950s, China had already produced more than 30,000 graduates, undergraduates, technically skilled personnel who later on contributed considerably to the development of the Chinese aerospace programme and the PLAAF. By the same time, the Chinese were able to manufacture more than 1000 aircraft and deliver it to the PLAAF. The aircraft included 767 fighters, 278 trainers, and 41 transport aircraft.22

The 1960s witnessed an uneven pattern of development in the Chinese aerospace sector. Investment during the Second Five Year Plan (1958-62), which converged with the Great Leap Forward, increased three times compared to that in the First Five Year Plan. The number of employees reached 3,00,000. Under the slogan of "building two factories with the investment of one and half the time", plans were made to double the number of military factories within a period of three years.23 Here, a period of massive investment, acceleration in concentration coincided with a period of what is called "disorderly management."24 It is evident from the fact that while new construction of more than twenty factories began during the period 1958-60, the same period also witnessed that out of fifty one projects initiated earlier none reached production stage. This led to an enormous waste of resources, serious quality problems, and above all, mismanagement.

Withdrawal of Soviet assistance combined with continued embargo of aerospace technology by the West forced the Chinese aerospace programme to enter a stage of independent construction. The Chinese government's aerospace policy keywords for this period were "Adjustment, Consolidation, Replenishment, and Improvement". In practice, this meant trying to cope with lagging quality production standards, concentration on spare parts manufacturing rather than the development of new aircraft types. Quality production to improve PLAAF operational rates were concentrated mostly on J-6, Z-5, and CJ-6 primary trainer aircraft types. Modification and refinement of existing Soviet designed aircraft and missile types were also given priority. During the initial years of readjustment, the expansion and reconstruction of most of the aircraft related factories had been slowed or stopped, except for a few. It is during this period that some old aviation factories in Beijing, Changchun, Harbin, and Nanjing were reconstructed and expanded.

Before the advent of the "Cultural Revolution", China's aerospace industry was on the path of overcoming earlier setbacks. Progress of various new missiles and aircraft programmes were on expected lines.25 Trial manufacture and batch production of several types of missiles and aircraft took place. Prominent among those were the PL-1 air-to-air missile, Red Flag ground-to-air missile, and SY-1 coastal defence missile, J-6 fighter, J-5A all-weather high subsonic fighter, J-7 Mach 2 calibre fighter, Q-5 supersonic attack aircraft H-5 light jet bomber, H-6 medium bomber, Y-7 and Y-8 transport aircraft, and others. The H-6 project whose designs were apparently based upon incomplete Soviet design documentation, proved the most technically challenging project of the time. It was designated a delivery vehicle for China's first atomic bombs and carried the initial live test on May 14, 1965. It is surprising to note that the turmoil at the height of the Cultural Revolution did not disrupt some important projects. The high altitude high speed Shenyang Aircraft J-8 fighter is a case in point. This fighter, along with WP7A aero-engine, was tested in 1969. Development of the J-8 marked a new era for China's aerospace industry, and derivatives of this design remain front-line aircraft of the PLAAF to this day.

The Cultural Revolution coincided with another notable development which impinged directly on China's defence industrial structure. Most of the aircraft and aircraft related factories were located along the coast in the traditional industrial centres. Although some inland construction of aviation industries began in the 1950s and early 1960s, only in October 1964 did these experiments warrant a policy incorporated into the "1965 National Defence Industry Work Plan."26 This supplemented the original strategy of the construction of what is called "Third Front" industrialisation in the Chinese interior which primarily had strategic and military objectives.27 Accordingly, in early 1965, the Third MMB decided to curtail or stop construction of First and Second Line (mostly in coastal and exclusive economic zones) aviation enterprises and shift some of them to the Third Line (hinterland that comprised provinces of Guizhou, Shaanxi, Sichuan, Yunnan, Hubei, Henen, Hunan, and Jianngxi). Within the next two to three years, forty thousand workers were moved to the hinterland to help construct aviation factories. Much of this effort was concentrated in Guizhou, where a complete set of aviation factories was built. About two thousand workers and staff from aviation factories in Shanghai, Tianjin and Beijing were ordered to go to Guizhou, together with all the equipment that was to be installed for production within six months. Similar bases were built in Shaanxi, Jiangxi, Hubei, and Hunan. This massive build up gathered momentum during the Cultural Revolution, when many factories came up without planning, feasibility study, or even official approval.28 This build up also included large scale duplication that proved costly to the Chinese in later years. Most of these factories were located in the remote regions that did not provide even basic facilities. This strategy was a costly affair. Huge amount of resources were wasted in this endeavour. Investment in Third Line Aviation industry reached 93.4 per cent of the total investment in the aviation industry in the Third Five Year Plan (1963-67) and 83.2 per cent in the Fourth Five Year Plan (1968-72).29 This strategy had a visible impact on the overall defence industrial structure of China where the hinterland development practically ate up most of the resources and the front line industries suffered heavily at the cost of the former.

Dependence on Soviet Union was enormous. In terms of supporting industrial structure, China even lacked specialised capabilities. It could supply basic things like steel, brass, copper, etc. but had to depend on the Soviets for specialised things like precision bearings, rubber products, acrylic plastic sheets, super alloys, large castings and forgings, and aerospace aluminium. Ordering for specialised material hence became a priority and coordinated efforts were made to procure all these from the Soviets in the initial phase of development. Later, China made efforts to establish a basic supporting infrastructure that could provide self sufficiency to the overall objectives. Fushun Steel Works became a centre for aerospace super alloy production; Shenyang Fourth and Fifth Rubber Factories emerged as aeronautical rubber production centres; Shenyang Number Three Rubber Factory and Tianjin Paint Factory produced aircraft tyres and aeronautical paints; Jinxi Chemical Factory produced aeronautical plastic sheets, Shanghai Chemical Fibre Factory produced specialised textile material for high-speed parachutes; and other specialised factories included Harbin Aluminium Machine Factory, Harbin Bearing Factory, Angang Number Two Cold Drawing Seamless Steel Tube Factory.30 Effort was also made to make the aviation industry self sufficient for fuel. Aviation fuel and oil of various types and uses were developed from the domestic reserves, thus eliminating the need for imported products of this type. The will to reduce dependency on others also needed a coordinated effort on research and development. The Aeronautical Materials Research Institute, the Metal Research Institute of the Academy of Sciences, the Iron and Steel Research Institute were engaged for advanced research on modern aircraft and aero-engines. Other areas of aeronautical research included materials, manufacturing technologies, information systems, flight automatic controls, weapons, and accessories.31 In addition to this, the development of institutes of aerodynamics, aero-engines, aircraft structural strength research, and flight research were accelerated during the mid-1960s to support China's capability for new aircraft design and old aircraft improvement. The prominent research institutes that supplemented this endeavour included the Shenyang Aero-engine Design Institute, Zhuzhou Aero-engine Design Institute, aircraft design institutes for helicopters, seaplanes, large aircraft, fighters, etc. Specialised factories were established to supply demands for precision airborne equipment such as instrumentation, communications and navigation systems, radar, optics, electronics, high altitude systems, aeronautical magnetoes, gyros, and micro motors.

Production and Supply

Production pattern of China's aviation industry has undergone three stages: repair, assembly and copy-production, and independent design. As has been explained elsewhere, China's embryonic aviation industry, during the formative years, was concentrating on repair and assembly of aircraft. Repair of aircraft formed the base while small scale assembly took place till the early 1950s. As early as 1952, Zhou Enlai reportedly urged the nascent Chinese aviation industry to develop the capacity to copy produce aircraft in three to five years. This was what the Soviets did not want them to do. But, according to the Chinese leaders, this was a quick, practical, and feasible way of supplying the armed forces with reliable weapons for urgent needs, before independent designs and original models could be developed. The assembly and copy-production stage lasted till the end of the 1950s, coinciding with the withdrawal of Soviet assitance. During this period, advanced technology was digested and absorbed, product designs and manufacturing techniques and skills were quickly mastered, people were trained, and management was improved. The policy of imitation and early dependence on the Soviets had impinged on the aviation industry to a considerable extent.

The first aircrafts produced were versions of the Soviet Yak-18 (Chinese designation CJ-5) primary trainer and the MIG-15 (J-4) jet fighter. The initial CJ-5s were produced in 1954 at the Nanchang Aircraft Factory, equipped with M-11 piston engines produced at the Zhuzhou Aero-engine Factory. After the first batch was produced, Mao Zedong congratulated the workers and staff on their 'triumphant success' and added: "This is an excellent beginning for the building of our founding of our nation's airplane building industry."32 From 1954 to 1958, a total number of 379 CJ-5 trainers were produced. In February 1956, Chinese-manufactured fighters and aero-engine type progressed to the more advanced MiG-17F (j-5) and VK-IF (WP-5) respectively, produced at the Shenyang Aircraft Factory. This was a notable achievement, given that only relatively few industrialised nations at that time were capable of manufacturing jet fighter aircraft. The number of J-5 subsonic fighters produced between 1956 and 1959 was 767. It was followed by modified versions produced since 1960 by the Chengdu Aircraft Factory. Some of these are still in service with the PLAAF. Beijing urged research institutes and factories that had acquired basic manufacturing skills through copy-production to start the design and production of an indigenous Chinese aircraft. This was the JJ-I jet fighter trainer, China's first trainer turned out by the Shenyang Aircraft Factory in July 1958. Yet China's attempt to produce high altitude, high-speed fighters (later known as J-6 and J-7, based on the MiG-19 and Mig-21, respectively) failed. Although Chinese made MiG-19s and J-6s were certified for production in 1959, as a result of the Great Leap Forward, a large number of aircraft produced in 1959 could not be delivered because of inferior quality and had thus to be improved for the next three years. The J-6 and J-7 production lines were left unfinished and inoperative. Nonetheless, Beijing decided to proceed.

The first flight of J-6 was made in 1961.33 Within two years, the Shenyang Aircraft Factory finally managed to produce good quality supersonic interceptors. Several modifications were later introduced and, by the time of Mao's death, some 270 Chinese J-6s had been exported, mostly to Pakistan, North Vietnam, and North Korea. Production of the J-7, begun at Shenyang in 1964, proved to be more difficult. In 1961, China signed a licensing agreement with the Soviet Union for the production of the MiG-21 and received technical data, complete aircraft and engine kits, some equipment and raw material not available in China. The J-7 made its maiden flight in early 1966 and was certified for production in June 1967.34 Since 1964 and 1965, production of the J-7 has been carried out by three aircraft factories: Shenyang, Chengdu, and the newly established Guizhou Aircraft Production Base. The Chinese may have succeeded in overcoming some J-7 production problems after they had allegedly managed to derail an unknown number of late model Soviet MiG-21s, shipped to Vietnam through Chinese territory.35

The late 1950s also saw the production of H-6 bomber, a licensed copy of the Soviet TU-16 medium jet bomber. This was possible, due to the use of a complete set of technical data, kits, and two samples according to Sino-Soviet agreements reached in 1956-57. Assembled by the Harbin Aircraft Factory, the H-6 made its initial flight in September 1959. From 1961 to 1964, all H-6 production shifted to Xi'an Aircraft Factory, where, in December 1968, the first Chinese-made H-6 began its test flights. By September 1964, the initial model was retrofitted in Xi'an into a nuclear bomb carrier and was used for the first time on May 14, 1964 to deliver a 20-40 kiloton atomic device in China's second nuclear test . On June 17, 1967, it delivered a 3 megaton thermonuclear bomb, and on November 17, 1976, it delivered a 4 megaton thermonuclear device, China's largest to date. By then, nearly half of China's nuclear tests (ten out of twenty one) had been carried out by the H-6.36 Batch production of the H-5, based on the Soviet light jet bomber IL-28, began at the Harbin Aircraft Factory in 1967 after three years of trial production using incomplete design drawing. A modified H-5 was used on December 25, 1968 to deliver a 3 megaton thermonuclear device.

By the late 1960s, the Chinese had managed to develop prototypes of a number of aircraft and other production. The Q-5 (ground attack aircraft), a radical modification of the Soviet MiG-19 is an example. Production of the Q-5 was undertaken by the Nanchang Aircraft Factory in 1958. Designed to match state-of-the-art foreign ground attack aircraft, the Q-5's development was suspended in 1961 due to accidents, the Great Leap Forward, and China's economic problems. Although the Q-5 was flight tested in 1965, batch production began only in late 1969, after considerable improvement. A modified nuclear bomb carrier, the Q-5A, made its first flight in August 1970. And, on January 7, 1972, it delivered a 20 kiloton hydrogen bomb in China's thirteenth n-test. Its not that Chinese copy-production tactic was always successful. Although based on the copy-production of the J-7 and from a study and analysis of documents of foreign fighters obtained, the J-8 (Chinese designed aircraft developed by the Shenyang Aircraft Factory) was less successful.37 A high altitude and high-speed fighter, its concept and specifications were worked out in late 1964 after years of preparation and deliberation. Trial production of the J-8, however, was seriously disrupted by the Cultural Revolution. Despite all difficulties, the J-8 made its first flight in June 1969; nonetheless, it took more than ten additional years to overcome many technical and management problems before the J-8 was finally certified. The other side of the aviation story, surprisingly was that although helicopter production technology was introduced in the mid-1950s, yet the Chinese were able to manufacture only one type: the Z-5 by the end of the 1960s, a modified version of the Soviet MI-4. It was certified in December 1959, but mass production of the Z-5 began only in 1963. By 1979, 545 number of Z-5s had been produced. The development of two other types of helicopters was terminated—the Z-6 due to technological difficulties, and the Z-7 due to pressing economic reasons.


Both organisation and infrastructure development of the Chinese aerospace industry have witnessed several common as well as distinct features. Those that stand out are political upheavals caused by the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution; strategic miscalculation like the Third Front; technological and strategic factors like strong Sino-Soviet defence cooperation as well as uneven pattern of bilateral relationships between the two undergoing strong and lean patches; and more importantly, economic difficulties. The frequent changes witnessed in organisational structure are attributable to all the above factors. Slowdown of infrastructure development is primarily due to reasons that are economic—both deficient allocation and sometimes unequal emphasis given to particular projects; changes caused by both at strategic and policy-making levels; and mismanagement especially during the late 1950s and the mid-1960s. At the same time, the Great Leap Forward forced the unprepared industry to quickly produce new kinds of aircraft. Indeed, the adverse impacts of Sino-Soviet relationship were already on the horizon which had forced the Chinese to contemplate indigenous production and self-reliance. The strategic decision to build a huge military-industrial structure in the remote and inaccessible hinterland (Third Front or Third Line) created more difficulties. Though this programme received the biggest chunk of financial assistance and consequently strived to link the remote with the urban regions of China, it was a failure simply because of the fact that it neither catered to domestic military needs nor did it provide a viable long-term solution to China's future military needs. The Cultural Revolution severely interfered with and destroyed the smooth development of Chinese military aircraft. In ten years, more than thirty projects were launched and cancelled as a result of mismanagement. Large amounts of development investment came to nought, valuable time was wasted, resulting in heavy losses. Technical problems led to many accidents, and hundreds of aircraft had to be returned to the factories for repair. These constraints confused and complicated R&D programmes, created unnecessary competition, stretched technical and production capacities to their limits, caused delays in other development and production programmes, seriously compromised quality, and most importantly, led to a waste of huge state resources.

On the brighter side, achievements were made in the aerospace activities though they were undermined by serious shortcomings like excessive dependence on the Soviets, backward technology, difficulties in adapting theories and designs to production, isolation from the international community, and radical politics complemented by short-sighted policies. China's aerospace industry, by the time of Mao's death in September 1976, had achieved great progress especially in the fields of copy-production, modification, and even independent development of various military aircraft. The decision in the early 1960s to adopt several aerospace policy keywords like adjustment, consolidation, replenishment, and improvement indeed paid off in the subsequent years. The Third Front aerospace industries, despite their shortcomings, have contributed enormously to both military as well as civilian needs. It was in the early 1960s, when the Chinese realised their short sighted programmes and tried to rectify their past mistakes, but by then China already lagged behind in all spheres. The desire to compensate for the shortcomings and the effort to accomplish it in a short span were both difficult and dangerous. In the final analysis, if one looks at the progress made during this one and a half decade, one will probably come to the conclusion that the Chinese have had a mixed result: the production was excessive, financial assistance was huge, the quality was poor, and the desire to adapt the superior technology from the West was not successful. It was only after the death of Mao and the years that followed in which China witnessed its most important transition from a closed to an open economy that the aerospace industry got a new lease of life. But that is another story.



1. See, China's Aerospace Industry (Surrey: Jane's Information Group Ltd., 1997), p. 12.

2. n. 1, p. 13.

3. The earliest Chinese experiments with flying machines having military applications have been recorded as far back as 420 AD. For details, see, n. 1, pp. 12-13.

4. Between late 1937 and mid-1941, Stalin provided about $300 million in credit to Chiang Kai-shek's regime to finance Soviet aid, including hundreds of planes, pilots to fly them, and instructors to train the Chinese pilots. For a detailed account of how the Soviets had helped the Chinese during the 1930s and early 1940s, see, Harry Schwartz, Tsars, Mandarins, and Commissars: A History of Chinese-Russian Relations (New York: Anchor Books, 1973), pp. 133-34.

5. This factory was relocated to Leiyong in Yunnan province, where it repaired, assembled and copied some 300 US aircraft over eight years for the war against Japan, n. 1, p. 13.

6. Qian Xuesen was considered to be one of the gifted Chinese scientists who was the co-inventor of the Karman-Tsien formula used for the aerodynamic design of high subsonic aircraft.

7. For a detailed account of the evolution of the Beijing Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, see, n. 1, Table 1.1, p. 14.

8. A prominent example includes the Northwest Polytechnic University, which partially traces its origin to the Engineering College of Beiyang University and the Jiaozuo Institute of Technology.

9. The best account is narrated by Yitzhak Shichor. See, Yitzhak Shichor, "Converting the Military-Aviation Industry to Civilian Use," in Jorn Brommelhorster and John Frankenstein eds., Mixed Motives, Uncertain Outcomes: Defence Conversion in China (London: Lynne Rienner, 1997), pp. 101-33.

10. Richard M. Bueschel, Communist China's Air Power (New York: Praeger, 1968), p. 39.

11. Duan Zijun ed., China Today: Aviation Industry (Beijing: China Aviation Industry Press, 1989), p. 7.

12. Shichor, pp. 102-13.

13. Huang Bin and Pan Yanxi, "Flying Freely in Vast Territory and High Sky-Account of Development of New China's Aviation Industry's", Renmin Rebao (People's Daily, Overseas Edition), September 26, 1994, p. 1.

14. Bin and Yanxi, n. 13, p. 1.

15. Kenneth W. Allen, Glenn Krummel and Jonathan D. Pollack, China's Air Force Enters the 21st Century (Project Air Force, prepared for the United States Air Force), Santa Monica, California: RAND, 1995), pp. 36-37.

16. Zijun, pp. 16-17.

17. In May 1953, shortly after Stalin's death, Moscow and Beijing signed this comprehensive agreement that provided for Soviet assistance in 141 major projects (increased to 156 in 1955), including 41 major national defence industrial enterprises of which thirteen, or almost one-third were aircraft factories, Zijun, p. 20.

18. Recently declassified Soviet documents record a conversation held on August 20, 1952. Responding to a request by Premier Zhou Enlai for Soviet aircraft, Stalin urged the Chinese to build their own aircraft manufacturing plants. Reluctantly, Zhou said that it would be very difficult to build aircraft, particularly jet aircraft, in the course of the First Five-Year Plan and noted that it would take at least three years to begin construction of engines and five years to begin construction of aircraft. Yet Stalin insisted. Pointing to the examples of Poland and Hungary, he offered to send engines and other aircraft parts so that China could set up assembly plants, and three years later, aircraft plants. Zhou remained lukewarm. Although he admitted that Beijing was beginning to understand this need and to organise maintenance and assembly plants, he added that "if comrade Stalin finds it necessary to hasten the process, then they will take all appropriate measures to comply," and would act upon the advice of the Soviet government, Shichor, p. 104.

19. Zijun, p. 14.

20. n. 1, p. 16.

21. Notable among the aerospace scientists included Xu Shunshou, Huang Zhiqian, Wu Daguan, and Yu Guanyu who studied in the UK and the US, came back to China and were appointed to establish the first modern aircraft and aero-engine design departments. Lu Xiaopeng, who studied in the UK became a chief aircraft designer and led the work for China's first generation aircraft.

22. n. 1, p. 16.

23. See, Barry Naughton, "Industrial Policy During the Cultural Revolution: Military Preparation, Decentralisation, and Leaps Forward" in William A. Joseph, Christine P.W. Wong, and David Zweig eds., New Perspectives on the Cultural Revolution (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1991), pp. 157-58.

24. Shichor, pp. 105-106.

25. n. 1, p. 19.

26. Shichor, p. 105.

27. For background and a detailed study of the Third Front, see, Barry Naughton, "The Third Front: Defence Industrialisation in the Chinese Interior", China Quarterly, no. 115, September 1988, pp. 351-86.

28. John W. Lewis and Xue Litai, China Builds the Bomb (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988), p. 244.

29. Naughton, p. 376.

30. n. 1, p. 20.

31. For details, see, Zhu Yuli, "China's Aviation Industry Spreads its Wings", Beijing Review, no. 13, 1994, pp. 8-11.

32. "Letter to the staff of the No. 320 Factory (August 1, 1954)", in Michael Y.M. Kau and John K. Leung eds., The Writings of Mao Zedong 1949-76, vol. 1, (Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe, Inc., 1986), pp. 466-67.

33. "China's Aviation Industry Flying High," Beijing Review, January 30, 1995, p. 27.

34. Shichor, p. 107.

35. n. 1, p. 19.

36. Lewis and Litai, p. 146.

37. Lewis and Litai, p. 147.