The head of China’s lunar exploration program turned heads in 2017 when he likened China’s space race to its fight over disputed territory in the South China Sea. Three years later, the space chief, Ye Peijian, launched a little-known partnership with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which gets tens of millions of dollars in U.S. taxpayer funding each year.
Ye, a member of the Chinese Communist Party, serves as editor in chief of Space: Science & Technology, a journal the American Association for the Advancement of Science publishes in coordination with the China Academy of Space Technology as part of a program with foreign scientists. The journal’s editorial board boasts officials from Chinese space agencies, military think tanks, and a state-owned satellite enterprise that Beijing has considered using to destroy Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite network. It regularly publishes articles from scientists at Chinese agencies sanctioned by the U.S. government for ties to the People’s Liberation Army.
It’s an eye-catching alliance for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which received $12.6 million in federal grants last year and is considered the country’s premier science collective.
"This dude is bad news for us," Brandon Weichert, a space security analyst, said of Ye. "A true believer in the CCP's dominance agenda for the world," added Weichert, who described the China Academy of Space Technology, where Ye serves as chief engineer, as "an arm of the CCP."
American officials have sounded the alarm about China’s ambitions to use its space program to advance its military and mine minerals on the moon. While Beijing insists its space program has entirely peaceful aims, Ye’s remarks from 2017 have been widely cited as evidence of China’s true goals. He compared Mars and the moon to disputed islands in the South China Sea and said, "if we don't go there now even though we're capable of doing so, then we will be blamed by our descendants. If others go there, then they will take over, and you won't be able to go even if you want to."
The American Association for the Advancement of Science, best known as the publisher of the journal Science, has maintained ties to China for decades, though the relationship has taken a giant leap in recent years. Last year, the American Association renewed a memorandum of understanding with the China Academy for Space Technology, citing the agency’s role in uniting "the Communist Party of China and the Chinese government through the country's science and technology community."
In addition to Space: Science & Technology, the American Association publishes several other journals with Chinese organizations as part of its "science partner journals" program. According to the association, its foreign partners have full editorial control over the content of the journals. And while the association touts those foreign partnerships as being above the fray of geopolitics, its coddling of Chinese entities gives Beijing the pedestal it has long sought on the international science stage.
Space: Science & Technology is part of an initiative that the Chinese Communist Party launched in 2019—the "China Science and Technology Journal Excellence Action Plan"—to "promote the high-quality development of China's sci-tech periodicals." The Chinese government pledged to spend roughly $70,000 a year on each journal picked for the initiative. It is unclear if the Chinese government made any of those payments to the American Association, which took in $73 million in publishing revenues last year.
Weichert, the space security analyst, warned against alliances between American science groups and CCP-linked outfits like the China Academy of Space Technology, and said Congress should intervene to prevent China’s space agencies from having access to the "wider American innovation sphere." The Chinese Communist Party "will use anything and everything, including the influence over our scientific journals, to manipulate and stymie real American research," he told the Washington Free Beacon.
Most of the articles in Space: Science & Technology appear to be straightforward reports about China’s technological developments for its space program. But others tout the Chinese space program’s projects, which Beijing has highlighted as it seeks to surpass the United States in the space race. And many of the entries are published by researchers at agencies under U.S. government sanctions.
The journal published a June 2021 article from a researcher at the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, who said China’s goal is to "catch up with and surpass" other space powers. In 2020, the Department of Defense identified the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology as a "Communist Chinese military company." On Aug. 24, 2022, the journal published an article from a researcher at the China Academy of Space Technology’s 502 Research Institute, which a day earlier had been added to the United States government’s blacklist of Chinese firms linked to the military.
The journal published research last month from scientists at the Chinese military’s Space Engineering University, a Chinese military think tank that proposed earlier this year to use lasers to "damage" Elon Musk’s Starlink satellites or wage cyberattacks to "paralyze" the system’s communications network. The researchers speculated the United States government could use Starlink to attack Chinese satellites or provide communications to American soldiers on the battlefield.
The journal regularly promotes the Tiangong space station, which China developed as an alternative to the International Space Station. An article published earlier this year details the development of a massive robotic arm on the space station and states that China will use the facility to "make pioneering contributions to the peaceful use of space for mankind." U.S. military officials have expressed concern that China plans to someday use the robotic arm to capture foreign satellites or for other nefarious purposes.
The government titles of many of Space’s editorial board members indicate militaristic purposes are at the forefront of China’s space program. The journal’s advisory board members serve at the Chinese Academy of Military Science, a think tank that develops military doctrine for the People’s Liberation Army, and the State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense, which was established to "strengthen military forces" and manage China’s nuclear, space, and aerospace programs.
Another board member is the general manager of the China Satellite Network Group, a state-owned satellite maker that the Chinese military has tasked with deploying 13,000 satellites to suppress—and perhaps one day destroy—the Starlink satellite program.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science did not respond to requests for comment.