In 1958 the People’s Republic of China embarked on Mao Zedong’s ‘Great Leap Forward’, in which China’s agriculture, already collectivized, was further consolidated into gigantic ‘people’s communes’, and in which communities and even individuals obligingly built ‘backyard smelters’ to fabricate steel. Out in Hunan province, in China’s west and through which ran the notorious ‘malaria belt’ wherein the disease was rampant, many thousands of peasants joined geology teams to prospect for uranium. Scrambling over rough terrain, wielding Geiger counters and pickaxes, the peasants managed to unearth a good deal of the stuff, which they fashioned, on the teams’ instructions, into yellowcake ready for enrichment. The Great Leap generally registered somewhere between a disappointment and a disaster: in the first category, the backyard smelters produced little in the way of useful steel, while the agricultural collectivization program, combined with rash exhortations by the government to overeat and the export of ‘surplus’ grain, caused starvation on a massive scale; as many as thirty million people died. For China’s nuclear program, the Great Leap’s legacy was mixed. As John W Lewis and Xue Litai note, the reckless quest to find and process uranium on a mass scale left the land gouged and polluted and wasted uranium that was inexpertly dug out and clumsily handled. On the other hand, the peculiar, land-rush approach to uranium prospecting yielded 150 tons of Ur concentrate, China’s first batch, and, according to Chinese authorities, sped the development of a nuclear weapon by a year. ‘In this limited sense,’ write Lewis and Xue, ‘the first Chinese bomb was a “people’s bomb”.’
Mao had once scorned the American atomic bomb as ‘a paper tiger’, used by the ‘reactionaries ...to scare people’. But, following the Korean War, during which US troops had encroached on China’s eastern border, and especially after the crisis in the Taiwan Straits in 1954-5, featuring explicit threats by President Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles of nuclear strikes against Chinese ‘military targets’, Mao decided that China needed a nuclear-weapons program too. Like several other nations, China had the main elements for such a project already in place. In the late 1930s the physicist Peng Huanwu worked with Max Born at Edinburgh. An expert in quantum field theory, Peng would become chief of the Chinese project’s theoretical division. Qian Sanqiang studied in Paris during the war with Irene Curie; he worked on uranium fissions. Peng and Qian returned to China after the revolution there had taken off and began training students in nuclear physics. (Qian’s Paris connection paid off: in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Frederic and Irene Joliot-Curie helped Qian buy equipment for nuclear-physics laboratories and gave him 10 grams of radium salt to nudge the work along.) The Soviets helped too, though grudgingly. In early 1955 they promised Mao a reactor, a cyclotron, and fissionable uranium sufficient for research. Mao was happy to have the offer but he mistrusted it, as he mistrusted the Soviet Union and it him, and his conviction that China would eventually have to do without much Soviet help guided his decision to send peasants into the hills with pickaxes three years later.
Indeed, by that time the Chinese watchword in nuclear matters was self-reliance. ‘We don’t have to learn from the Soviet Union,’ claimed Mao following icy talks with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev; Mao had wanted, he told his physician, to ‘stick a needle up [Khrushchev’s] ass’, to which Khrushchev responded by rescinding an earlier offer to China of a prototype A-bomb. Alarmed at what they considered Mao’s ‘adventurism’ in the form of twisting the tail of the American paper tiger, the Russians backpedaled from their other nuclear commitments, withdrawing their scientists and technicians from China’s labs and reneging on agreements to supply China generously with more equipment and uranium. Of course, the years of exposure to Soviet expertise had helped Chinese scientists, and so too did the American Smyth Report, Robert Jungk’s book on the atomic scientists, and the memoir of Leslie Groves, of all people. Still, by 1960 the Chinese considered themselves to be going it alone. The political tumults unleashed periodically by Mao—not just the Great Leap Forward, but several campaigns against ‘rightist’ intellectuals—brushed the nuclear program but never untracked it, for it was well defended by Premier Zhou Enlai and Nie Rongzhen, head of China’s strategic weapons program after 1958. It helped that the project was located in the west, near sources of uranium and away from cities where the various political campaigns and intrigues were most acute. China’s gaseous diffusion plant was in Lanzhou, Gansu Province, a place so remote, it was said, that ‘even the rabbits won’t defecate’ there.
Chinese scientists chose uranium for their fuel, gaseous diffusion for its refinement, and implosion as the means of detonating a test nuclear device. A detachment from the People’s Liberation Army found a test site in desolate marshland just north of a lake called Lop Nur. The army, using a good deal of prison labor, carved out a compound there in the early 1960s, fighting hunger by eating leaves and using the same scarce water for cooking and washing. The test device came west in 1964, the bomb itself by rail, its core by air. The parts were assembled onsite. Last minute reconnaissance photos revealed a small human settlement within the blast area; expert trackers caught 200 people who turned out to be impoverished holdouts from Chiang Kaishek’s Kuomintang. A technician named Yang apparently dreamed the date and time of the test: in the fifteenth anniversary year of the founding of the PRC, fifteen days hence (it was then 1 October), and at 1500 hours. The test duly occurred then. The bomb was hauled up a tower, as at Trinity, and rigged for detonation. At 3.00 on 16 October 1964, the device exploded. It worked perfectly. Several of the scientists present wept for joy. Zhou Enlai, getting word of the success while hosting a large number of actors at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, announced the shot, then admonished the cheering thespians not to damage the floor.
The Chinese thereafter moved quickly to test a thermonuclear device (June 1967) and to build deliverable warheads. Moved to act by security concerns and status-driven desire to prove Chinese scientific prowess, and in spite of political upheaval and economic uncertainty, the PRC had joined the world’s nuclear club within nine years of deciding to do so. The nation had had critical help before 1960. But Lewis and Xue emphasize China’s determination to succeed on its own. ‘The scientific wonder of fission and its potential’, they write, ‘enraptured and drew to it men and women of China just as much as it did all attached to that [scientific] fraternity. That this must be said derives more from American parochialism than from anything special about China.’ By the end of the twentieth century, China had some 450 nuclear warheads, most of them based on land, though only twenty or so of the long-range (ICBM) variety. And, in the wake of the nuclear test by India, in 1974, China helped Pakistan go nuclear with advice, blueprints, and a supply of weapons-grade uranium.8