This chapter documents changes in how Chinese leaders have viewed nuclear weapons. It attempts to show the evolution of Chinese views about nuclear weapons as reflected in actual policy.

Studies of Chinese attitudes towards nuclear weapons can be built on quotations from various leaders, starting with Mao himself, but collections of Maoist aphorisms can also be orphaned from time and context. World leaders have a distressing tendency to say one thing about nuclear weapons while doing another. US president Dwight D. Eisenhower, for example, once expressed dismay at the notion of 1,000 or more nuclear-armed 0 (ICBM), yet he bequeathed his successor a programme to build 1,950 Minuteman missiles. This chapter documents changes in how Chinese leaders have viewed nuclear weapons. It attempts to show the evolution of Chinese views about nuclear weapons as reflected in actual policy. The remarks of Mao and other leaders are an essential part of this discussion, but only when presented in their proper context.

The best-recalled of Mao’s quotations was the assertion, repeated in propaganda frequently during his lifetime, that nuclear weapons were a ‘paper tiger’ – a claim that usually strikes Western observers as peculiar, especially for the leader of a nuclear-armed state. The statement, however, is consistent with larger Maoist themes about the triumph of socialism over better-armed imperialists and politics over superiority in arms. 

From the earliest stages of China’s efforts to acquire nuclear weapons, Chinese leaders thought of the nuclear-weapons programme in terms of the overall level of China’s industrial and technological development rather than specific military requirements. The origins of China’s programmes to develop
thermonuclear weapons and ballistic missiles lie in the same period of technological and industrial ambition that produced China’s Great Leap Forward (1958–61).

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Jeffrey Lewis Director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and an affiliate with the Center for Security and International Cooperation at Stanford University.

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