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).

An emphasis on mastery of technologies accounts for the ambitious goals set for the nuclear-weapons programme – an immediate emphasis on thermonuclear weapons and ICBMs starting from the late 1950s. China’s mid-1960s ambition to beat France in testing a thermonuclear weapon reflects the same mindset that produced the Great Leap Forward era’s emphasis on surpassing the UK in steel production. Yet while its leaders were eager to hurdle to the front ranks of technology, China was slow to deploy operational nuclear forces in the interim, which reinforced a tendency to neglect the details of nuclear strategy and operational plans. In a November 1968 discussion with E.F. Hill, an Australian communist, Mao said, ‘Our country, in a sense, is still a non-nuclear power. With this little nuclear weaponry, we cannot be counted as a nuclear country. If we are to fight a war, we must use conventional weapons.’1

Then there were China’s turbulent domestic politics. The command-and-control of nuclear weapons was a sensitive political issue, intertwined with China’s leadership politics, which centred, in part, on control of the armed forces. One can see general trends in Chinese thinking about nuclear weapons, particularly a pervasive belief that nuclear weapons are primarily instruments of political coercion, as well as the related view that small numbers of weapons would suffice to neutralise larger arsenals used in this manner. However, China would not develop a formal nuclear strategy and operational plans until after Mao’s death in 1976 and the deployment of the first ICBMs in the early 1980s.

Today, China’s forces and policies continue to develop largely along the trajectory set in the mid-1980s under Deng Xiaoping’s leadership, even though the country has changed markedly. Technology has also changed dramatically in the intervening decades, particularly with the emergence of precision conventional-strike forces – the ‘Revolution in Military Affairs’ widely recognised to have taken place after the Gulf War (1990–91). China’s leaders are now facing increasingly effective missile-defence and precision-strike capabilities. Although China’s policy of nuclear no-first-use is likely to remain in place, these new conventional capabilities pose a serious challenge to how Chinese leaders approach nuclear weapons.

The Korean War and after

Chinese state media dates China’s decision to pursue nuclear weapons to January 1955. This date falls after the Korean War (1950–53) and during the 1954–55 armed conflict over a series of islands between China and Taiwan now known as the First Taiwan Strait Crisis. The date also corresponds to the Soviet Union’s public announcement of the intention to aid China in developing a peaceful nuclear energy programme. At that time, Chinese premier Zhou Enlai addressed a plenary meeting of the Chinese State Council, confirming that the Soviet announcement was the result of recent negotiations and offering the first rationale for the Chinese nuclear-weapons programme.2

Revisiting Zhou’s speech challenges the simple narrative that ‘nuclear blackmail’ drove China to acquire nuclear weapons. Chinese and American sources both emphasise the role of US nuclear threats in prompting Chinese interest in nuclear weapons. Many Americans believe that US nuclear threats compelled Beijing to accept Washington’s armistice terms in Korea in 1953. Chinese state propaganda asserts that US nuclear threats related to the dispute over Taiwan’s status compelled China to seek nuclear weapons of its own.

On balance, archival evidence does not support either view. Chen Jian notes the lack of evidence in Chinese archives linking US nuclear threats to the evolution of Beijing’s attitude toward the armistice.3 Indeed, there is little evidence that any nuclear threat was conveyed to Beijing.4 Chinese leaders accurately assessed the capabilities and limitations of the US nuclear stockpile, as well as the political constraints on the US use of nuclear weapons. China’s leaders concluded that nuclear weapons might be useful for political coercion, but did not offer decisive military capabilities. Such a view is broadly consistent with their ideologically determined beliefs about the importance of fighting a ‘people’s war’.

Similarly, Chinese interest in nuclear weapons preceded the First Taiwan Strait Crisis, which began in August 1954. One does not need to explain Chinese interest in nuclear weapons during this period; it would have been surprising only if China had decided to forgo such capabilities. At that time, there was no norm against nuclear weapons. The presumption was that if a state could build nuclear weapons, it would.

China began negotiating with Moscow in October 1954 for nuclear assistance, culminating in the January 1955 announcement when Zhou addressed the Chinese State Council. In his speech, Zhou made a series of arguments about why China sought nuclear weapons. Although Zhou emphasised the role of US nuclear coercion, he made a counterintuitive point that was a recurring theme in Chinese propaganda of the period: the US engaged in nuclear coercion because its policymakers were, in fact, far more terrified by the prospect of a nuclear war than their Chinese counterparts. Zhou asserted that Chinese leaders did not regard nuclear weapons as ‘special’ in the sense of having a unique power to compel – that was an American notion. What China would do, Zhou argued, was ‘master’ nuclear technology, to replace any sense of terror with scientific understanding. This understanding of nuclear weapons, combined with what Chinese leaders regarded as a correct ideological outlook, would eliminate China’s vulnerability to American coercion. The US would be far too frightened by the reality of a Chinese bomb to continue engaging in the sort of coercion that Chinese leaders believed they were being subjected to in the Taiwan Strait.

This view is evident in the ‘Guidelines for Developing Nuclear Weapons’, probably drafted by the Central Military Commission, in June 1958.5 The guidelines start by making clear that the purpose of China’s nuclear weapons would be to ‘warn’ its enemies against war, not to attack them. To that end, the guidelines establish thermonuclear weapons and ICBMs – what would later be described as ‘sophisticated weapons’ – as the preferred forces, explicitly eschewing tactical nuclear weapons. The guidelines repeat the theme of Zhou’s 1955 speech, warning China not to ‘imitate’ other powers presumably frightened by nuclear weapons, but to catch up and keep pace with their technological achievements – the goal of mastery that would place China on equal footing with other major powers and immunise it against nuclear coercion.

Paper tigers

Zhou’s arguments are broadly consistent with the Maoist emphasis on the importance of ideological considerations over sheer material factors in the outcome of any struggle. As early as 1946, Mao had declared that reactionaries and atomic bombs were ‘paper tigers’ – things that appear frightening, but have no power. Referring to enemies or their weapons as paper tigers alludes to an earlier concept of ‘the superiority of men and politics’ over weaponry, an important consideration for a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) that could expect to continue facing enemies equipped with superior arsenals, including nuclear weapons. The notion itself is derived from a Leninist maxim about the ideological commitment of cadres being more decisive than modern weapons in war. 6

A trove of documents, usually referred to as the 1961 ‘Secret Chinese military papers’, helps to illustrate the role that ideological statements played in creating guidance for military leaders and their units. Sometime in late 1961 or 1962, the US intelligence community acquired the 1 January–26 August 1961 issues of a secret PLA military newsletter, Bulletin of Activities, distributed to officers at the regimental level or above. The Bulletin includes important speeches and ideological guidance for military leaders. These constituted the major source of evidence for early US assessments about Chinese views of nuclear weapons and nuclear warfare. The State Department released the trove to the National Archives in 1963, allowing scholars to translate and analyse the contents.7

Strategic thinking in China about nuclear weapons would remain limited to this broad ideological commitment to master the same technologies as other major powers. ‘Peking has not yet produced a full-fledged doctrine on nuclear warfare and may not do so until after an effective nuclear capability has been developed, and perhaps not until Mao Tse-tung has passed from the scene’, the late Ralph Powell, a professor of Far Eastern Studies at American University who was stationed in China from 1941–48, anticipated in 1968. ‘Mao’s preconceived ideas have had somewhat the same retarding effect on atomic doctrine, but not on the development of nuclear weapons, that Stalin’s “permanently operating factors” had in the Soviet Union.’8 Events in 1969 would demonstrate Powell’s prescience.

1958 Guidelines for Developing Nuclear Weapons

1. Our country is developing nuclear weapons in order to warn our enemies against making war on us, not in order to use nuclear weapons to attack them. This is conducive to the support of the international proletarian revolutionary movement and colonial independence movement. 

2. The main reasons for us to develop nuclear weapons are to defend peace, save mankind from a nuclear holocaust, and reach agreement on nuclear disarmament and the complete abolition of nuclear weapons.

3. To this end, we have to concentrate our energies on developing nuclear and thermonuclear warheads with high yields and long-range delivery vehicles. For the time being we have no intention of developing tactical nuclear weapons.

4. In the process of developing nuclear weapons, we should not imitate other countries. Instead, our objective should be to take steps to ‘catch up with advanced world levels’ and to ‘proceed on all phases [of the nuclear programme] simultaneously’.

5. In order to achieve success rapidly in developing nuclear weapons, we must concentrate human, material and financial resources. We have to concentrate superior forces to fight a war of annihilation. Any other projects for our country’s reconstruction will have to take second place to the development of nuclear weapons. 

6. It is time for science and scientists to serve the Party’s policies, not for the Party’s policy to serve science and scientists. Therefore, we must guarantee the Party’s absolute leadership of this [nuclear-weapons] project. We need to strictly adhere to the politics, to strengthen the political and ideological education of staff and patriotic education. 

7. We have to train a new team of nuclear scientists and technicians in the shortest time, who are from worker and peasant families. As long as we have manpower, we will be able to generate development in various undertakings. The task of training successors [for the nuclear-weapons programme] is as important as the manufacture of nuclear weapons.

8. We must set up a separate security system so as to guarantee absolute secrecy.

Initial translation by Xue Litai. Supplemental translation by Pan Fangdi


China’s pledge to not under any circumstance be the first to use nuclear weapons has evolved into the single best-known element of China’s nuclear-weapons policy. It became a staple of Chinese diplomacy with the release of a statement announcing China’s first nuclear test in 1964. Until the mid-1950s, Beijing had tended to support Soviet diplomatic policies, particularly Moscow’s arms-control proposals. The idea of a no-first-use pledge had appeared in appeals for disarmament, as well as in diplomatic propaganda, alongside the broader effort to ban the use of nuclear weapons. Popular appeals, such as the 1950 Stockholm Appeal promoted by French physicist Frederic Joliot Curie, mentioned a prohibition on the first use of nuclear weapons. The Soviets made a similar proposal in 1955. But the Chinese, before October 1964, showed no special interest in no-first-use.

After hints of growing independence from the Soviet line in Chinese foreign policy during the late 1950s, Moscow and Beijing broke over Soviet support for negotiations leading to the Limited Test Ban Treaty (LTBT). A ban on atmospheric tests would have imposed a significant constraint on China’s nuclear arsenal. To add insult to injury, the Soviets justified suspending their aid to China’s nuclear programme in a June 1959 letter warning that continued assistance might jeopardise test-ban talks with the US. The Chinese, in response, would denounce the LTBT upon its signing in 1963 as ‘a big fraud to fool the people of the world’.9

During the 1959–64 period, China developed a number of arms-control proposals to deflect pressure applied by other developing countries that supported efforts to ban atmospheric nuclear testing.10 Zhou Enlai visited ten African countries in December 1963 and January 1964, where, according to Morton Halperin and Dwight Perkins, at the time scholars at Harvard University, he ‘was sharply questioned about China’s unwillingness to sign the Test Ban Treaty, not only by newsmen in press conferences but also by government officials…’11 Zhou used China’s support for nuclear-weapons-free zones, especially an African one, and a proposal for a summit of world leaders to discuss the ‘complete prohibition’ of nuclear weapons, to blunt criticism of China’s opposition to the test ban. Zhou found support among African nations for a regional nuclear-weapons-free zone, but little interest in his summit proposal.

After China’s first nuclear explosion in October 1964, Beijing dropped proposals for an Asian nuclear-weapons-free zone in favour of Zhou’s notion of a summit of world leaders to discuss the prohibition of nuclear weapons. Modern reproductions of the October 1964 statement announcing China’s first nuclear explosion are usually abridged, often omitting the summit proposal. China envisioned a no-first-use pledge as the central obligation of the nuclear-weapons states that might emerge from such a meeting. In addition to the formal statement announcing the first nuclear test, Zhou sent a cable to other heads of state that was far more measured in tone, proposing such a summit.12

No-first-use arose from a specific diplomatic need to reduce pressure on China to join the ban on atmospheric nuclear explosions, a step that would have stunted the development of its nuclear-weapons capabilities. China’s no-first-use policy also embodied Zhou’s notion that threats to use nuclear weapons in fact reflect a debilitating fear of such weapons. The full statement of October 1964 contains several paragraphs on ideological considerations relating to nuclear weapons, explaining Mao’s paper tiger notion, expressing fealty to Marxism–Leninism and reaffirming that the outcome of a war is decided by the people, not any weapon.13 No-first-use appears at the end of a Maoist sermon on the nature of human history, war and nuclear weapons.

The pledge is, therefore, less a promise to others than the obvious policy arising from Beijing’s view that Washington engaged in nuclear coercion because nuclear weapons were what US policymakers feared most. Threats by China to use its nuclear weapons against weaker states would undermine Chinese claims that the numerically superior US nuclear force had little coercive value. For those inclined to regard no-first-use as a false promise, it’s clear that Mao did not intend the statement to be reassuring to Washington or Moscow. The tone of the official communiqué is aggressive, hectoring and a little self-righteous.

Almost immediately, China demanded that the US issue its own no-first-use pledge. Beijing viewed the demand as a test of whether or not the US would continue to subject China to what it described as ‘nuclear blackmail’. In addition to Zhou’s diplomatic cable proposing a disarmament summit, China also relayed a proposal for a bilateral no-first-use pledge to the US through a channel in Warsaw. The US rejected the proposal. When, some months later, the United States deployed a Polaris missile submarine to Asia, the Chinese response in the weekly Peking Review established no-first-use as a test of US intentions:

Shortly after its first nuclear test, China proposed to the United States that the Governments of both countries should issue a formal statement pledging that neither of them would at any time or under any circumstances use nuclear weapons. If the United States had any sincere desire for peace, it would have been easy to reach an agreement…14

With the 1964 statement, China had in place the ideological and policy components of its early thinking about nuclear weapons. Nuclear doctrine and operational concepts would have to wait for China to deploy credible forces and, more significantly, for Mao to die.

Politics of command-and-control

Over the course of the 1960s, China pursued the development of thermonuclear weapons and an ICBM. China tested a staged thermonuclear weapon in 1967 and conducted a partial-range test of a DF-5 ICBM in 1971.15

China’s technical progress, however, was not matched by the deployment of significant nuclear forces (see Chapter Four), a formal nuclear strategy or even operational concepts relating to command-and-control. Chinese thinking remained highly ideological during this period, a tendency reinforced by the growing chaos of the Cultural Revolution, a mass movement inspired by Mao that tore apart the Chinese leadership beginning in May 1966.16

The nature of the political struggle among factions, including for control of the armed forces, prevented any effort to develop a plausible nuclear strategy or operational concepts for the nuclear forces that China was developing.

Recent scholarship has focused on the role of China’s nuclear forces during the 1969 crisis with the Soviet Union, particularly whether China’s nuclear forces were placed on alert during this period and what this might tell us about Chinese thinking. Sino-Soviet relations deteriorated steadily throughout the 1960s and war appeared possible following border skirmishes that started when Chinese forces fired on a Soviet patrol on the disputed Zhenbao (Damansky) Island in the Ussuri River in March 1969.

The resulting 1969 Sino-Soviet crisis is an important episode in Chinese foreign policy. It grew out of Chinese wariness following the violent Soviet suppression, in August 1968, of the Prague Spring movement in Czechoslovakia, as well as the growing turmoil of the Cultural Revolution. Mao, whose leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) replaced that of a Soviet faction in the 1930s, remained wary of Soviet ambitions – and more than willing to paint his opponents as agents of Moscow. It was during this period that Mao apparently returned to the notion of improving relations with the US, which he described as the ‘far away enemy’ in contrast to nearer foes such as the Soviet Union, India and Japan. The Sino-Soviet crisis was the immediate cause of a well-known report – signed by four eminent Chinese leaders who had attained the rank of Marshal, including Nie Rongzhen – that proposed improving relations with the US as a counterbalance to Soviet influence.

The crisis, which began with skirmishing in the spring before descending into a nuclear crisis in the autumn, is the first instance of ground-combat between two nuclear-armed states. It resulted in both an implicit Soviet nuclear threat against China and an unusual episode in which China’s nuclear forces are sometimes said to have been placed on alert. The entire episode, however, is so intertwined with the politics of the time that even today an objective understanding is difficult to reach. The so-called alert of 1969 demonstrates how difficult it can be to understand nuclear weapons decisions outside of their immediate political context.

Available information about this crisis largely comes from Zhang Yunsheng, who was aide to Lin Biao – Mao’s heir apparent in 1969.17 The crisis seems to have deepened following what some believed to be a Soviet threat to use nuclear weapons in an unofficial radio broadcast. Zhang claims Chinese leaders became increasingly concerned about the possibility of a Soviet attack in October 1969.

As tension grew, the Chinese government undertook a number of war preparations. In mid-October, the Central Committee ordered China’s leadership to disperse along the Beijing–Guangzhou rail line: Mao went to Wuhan; Lin Biao went to Suzhou; Zhou Enlai remained behind in Beijing as a crisis manager, as did Lin’s ally General Huang Yongsheng, the head of the army.

The reason for the dispersal, as well as the actual level of concern, remains disputed. Some accounts describe the attitude within the Chinese leadership as ‘panic’. Yet Mao’s physician, Li Zhishui, described Mao as calm during his stay in Wuhan.18 Other leaders who were evacuated – such as Nie Rongzhen – argue that Lin pushed for the evacuation to isolate his political rivals.19 Lin, who died in an air crash in 1971 after allegedly plotting a coup, did use the October 1969 evacuation of Beijing to place the Second Artillery’s first commander, Xiang Shouzhi, under house arrest in the countryside.20 It is unclear, however, whether the ultimate force behind the evacuation was Lin or, in fact, Mao himself.

Once the evacuations occurred, the dispersed leadership communicated by telephone, setting the stage for China’s first experience with the command-and-control of strategic forces. Once in Suzhou, Lin continued issuing guidance for implementing the Central Committee’s decision on war preparations.21 Lin verbally dictated six general points to his aide Zhang Yusheng. One of the six points stated that China’s nascent missile forces must be ready to launch at any time. The aide wrote down the points, then discussed them with Lin’s wife, Ye Qun, who suggested they clarify that Lin was not ordering an immediate launch. Having written down Lin’s six points, the aide then telephoned General Huang in Beijing. Huang, in turn, telephoned a subordinate, tasking him with rendering Lin’s broad guidance into an actionable military order. The subordinate reformatted the six points in the form of a series of four directives to different institutions, issued under the authority of Lin as the Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission. ‘Directive No. 1’ resulted in a massive redeployment of Chinese ground forces. ‘Directive No. 2’, which has not been declassified, transmitted Lin’s guidance that the Second Artillery must be ready to launch at any time. General Yan tried to get General Huang’s approval to issue the six principles in the form of four directives, but Huang was not available. As a result, General Yan issued the order in Lin’s name without further approval. Ye Qun, Lin’s wife, called Mao’s bodyguard, Wang Dongxin, to inform Mao about the order. Mao and others would later claim that Lin acted alone to usurp Mao’s authority although this is far from clear.22

Chinese accounts do not explain what precise order was given to the Second Artillery. Lin himself seems to have been improvising, given that Zhang suggested Lin further clarify he was not ordering units to fire the missiles. Since China has not declassified Directive No. 2, we can only guess how Huang and his staff interpreted Lin’s guidance.

One suggestion is that the alert meant arming any deployed missiles with warheads, then erecting – but not fueling – them.23 But what if, as Mao implied to E.F. Hill, China had deployed no ballistic missiles in late 1969? US intelligence assessments did not detect DF-2 deployments until the early 1970s, although they may have missed small, camouflaged deployments.24 If China had no deployed ballistic missiles, Directive No. 2 may have been meant for units at China’s missile-test sites where DF-2 and possibly DF-3 testing was being conducted. This would explain a puzzle. In one account Lin seems to have ordered DF-3s to be placed on alert, even though China had no such missiles at the time. Lin misunderstood defence-industry reports on the development of the missile. In another account Huang’s staff made provision for the launch of test missiles in extreme circumstances. At the time, China had modified some aircraft to conduct nuclear tests. Chinese sources suggest Chinese leaders would have considered these assets for operational missions in extreme circumstances, such as the October 1969 crisis.

The crisis lacks a clear end. China’s leaders trickled back into to Beijing, although the factionalism continued. Mao was apparently displeased at the notion of an order in the name of the vice chairman – Lin Biao – that seemed to usurp his own authority. The standard Chinese interpretation of this event is that Lin’s orders were a dress rehearsal for the failed 1971 coup that resulted in Lin’s attempt to flee to the Soviet Union and the ensuing fatal plane crash in Mongolia. A lively debate exists about the accuracy of the official Chinese account of Lin’s actions, but Mao used the event to purge the uniformed ranks of General Huang and other senior officers close to Lin. Lin’s alleged treachery remained a live issue in Chinese politics for years afterward, with Lin’s supporters tried in 1981 as part of a broader series of trials against the Gang of Four (four prominent CCP officials) and their supposed allies.

The nature of the charges against Lin illustrates the challenge of building a nuclear strategy or developing operational practices in Mao’s China. China had no formal command-and-control structure. The act of issuing orders to military units was highly political. Some contemporary declassified US intelligence assessments noted the lack of strategic or operational writings regarding nuclear weapons during Mao’s lifetime. The reticence of military officers to raise issues relating to nuclear policy is easy to understand given the politics associated with Lin’s Directive No. 2. It was not until after Mao’s death in 1976 and Deng Xiaoping’s subsequent consolidation of power that discussion of nuclear policy began in earnest. Xiang Shouzhi, who returned from tending pigs to lead the Second Artillery a second time in the mid-1970s, only to be sent away again, was offered a third stint as commander of the Second Artillery. He declined, making clear he preferred pigs to his colleagues in Beijing.

What little evidence exists for discussions on nuclear weapons in the 1970s relates to basing locations and modes, and whether China’s new ballistic missiles would be deployed in silos, caves or some other mode. Attention to operational considerations fell short of detailed planning that might be integrated with China’s nuclear policy or strategy.

Developing operational concepts

After Mao’s death, Deng Xiaoping consolidated his authority, eventually pushing aside Mao’s chosen successor Hua Guofeng. Deng’s leadership involved a return to more rational policy planning, as well as an ideological assessment that the international environment was, for the time being, essentially peaceful, allowing China to pursue economic development rather than prepare for war and revolution.

At the same time, China began deploying small numbers of DF-4 and DF-5 ICBMs. The leaders of the Second Artillery began to think about developing formal operational concepts for the country’s nuclear forces, hosting symposia and establishing a research committee that would develop materials on nuclear strategy and operational practices. This process resulted in the production of a series of texts, including The Science of Second Artillery Campaigns, one of the main sources that foreign analysts have relied upon when seeking to understand the development of China’s nuclear strategy and operational plans.

The Second Artillery convened a pair of symposia in December 1979 and July 1981, which resulted in new work regulations, alongside a military glossary. In 1983, they established an academic department at the Academy of Military Sciences, China’s top military research institute, followed by a committee for academic research to formulate a ‘science of operations’ and ‘operational principles and rules’ for missile units.

The committee concluded that China required a formal nuclear strategy to translate broad policy guidance relating to no-first-use and overall military strategy into plausible operational concepts for deployed nuclear forces.25 The committee sought permission to draft a comprehensive nuclear strategy that, following a series of meetings in 1987, was approved by the Central Military Commission in 1989.

Texts such as The Science of Second Artillery Campaigns dominate US discourse about Chinese thinking on nuclear weapons in the same way that the Bulletin of Activities did in the 1960s. The new nuclear strategy, according to Lewis and Xue, represented ‘a meaningful break from the past’ by articulating a notion of a ‘self defensive strategy’ that would import the language of deterrence into the role of nuclear weapons in China’s security.26

Other commentators see more continuity with the past, although some Chinese officials and experts have become more comfortable with the term ‘deterrence’, which initially only applied to the US and was treated as a synonym for coercion. The term usually associated with deterrence in Mandarin is ‘weishe’, which carries a connotation of coercion not present in English and usually describes how foreign powers, especially the US, use nuclear weapons.27 The point may seem an abstract one, but it can lead to confusion since some Chinese speakers use the term ‘weishe’ to mean coercion exclusively in the context of foreign nuclear strategy, while others use it as English speakers might, either to facilitate dialogue or as a result of an English-language education.

There is an ongoing debate in Western circles about whether China’s no-first-use policy represents a real operational constraint on the Second Artillery.28 This debate arises from Chinese military writings and other materials that point out the problems of a categorical pledge to never be the first to use nuclear weapons under any circumstances. The practical difficulties associated with such a pledge are, of course, well documented in the strategic literature of Western countries, where policymakers and strategists have long rejected such a policy as destabilising and, in the colourful acronym favoured by certain bureaucracies, NOFUN (no-first-use of nuclear weapons).

In the Chinese context, conversely, ‘no-first use’ is better understood as an ideological statement about the nature of nuclear weapons. These considerations touch on the legitimacy and authority of specific leaders, as well as the party in general.

Another interpretation of the debates about no-first-use, then, is that the discussions represent a continuing effort to develop plausible operational concepts for China’s nuclear forces within the strictures of policy. Nuclear strategy, in China, links policy imposed from above with operational requirements developed by the military. Nuclear strategy can help mediate the tension between the requirements for operationally credible forces and the political imperative of no-first-use.

While to all appearances there are Chinese military and policy experts who would prefer some other policy to no-first-use, the Second Artillery seems to have focused on debates about how to implement the policy rather than a frontal assault on the policy itself. The rise of conventionally armed missiles in the Second Artillery, married to a fundamentally different set of operational concepts, suggests that the Second Artillery’s interests increasingly lie in conventional capabilities. It is unclear whether the interest in conventionally-armed missiles results from disdain for no-first-use or the limitations of nuclear weapons in general.

The challenge of creating plausible operational concepts for China’s nuclear forces under no-first-use arises from the growing ability of conventional weapons to hold at-risk strategic targets. For example, in 2010, Japan’s Kyodo News acquired a copy of The Science of Second Artillery Campaigns and reported that the document contained plans to abandon no-first-use in the face of attacks on nuclear power plants, dams and other civilian targets.29

The text, however, makes a more complex point. China might consider a shift in its declaratory posture – what Beijing will say about nuclear weapons – to prevent an impending attack with conventional weapons that would produce mass civilian casualties.30 In early 2000, some Taiwanese and US strategists began openly discussing the use of conventional weapons against urban populations or high-value targets such as the Three Gorges Dam. Conventional strikes that cause mass casualties are particularly difficult to deter under the strictures of no-first-use. Reportedly, Chinese planners chose to reserve the right, subject to the decision of the political leadership, to announce a change in their declaratory policy in the unlikely scenario that the US or another country threatened to use conventional weapons to disarm the country’s nuclear forces or drown millions of Chinese citizens by destroying a dam. This position on deterring conventional attacks with nuclear weapons is somewhat similar to the current US position on using nuclear weapons to deter biological-weapons attacks. That is, the US offers a clean assurance that it will not use nuclear weapons to respond to biological-weapons attacks, while reserving the right to change the policy in response if states should develop biological weapons truly capable of mass casualties.31

Contemporary Chinese thinking

China’s development of plausible operational concepts and a formal nuclear strategy arose in connection with its deployment of silo-based, liquid-fueled ICBMs in the early 1980s. The deployment of solid-fueled, road-mobile ICBMs, and soon also submarine-launched ballistic missiles, creates an incentive to arm some missiles with warheads. China, too, is changing rapidly. The military is vastly more professional and the political leadership, on the whole, remains committed to suppressing the sort of factionalism and turmoil that defined Mao’s China. A major policy question is whether the manner in which Chinese decision-makers have historically treated nuclear weapons will offer a reliable guide to their future actions.

The 1990s were a difficult time for Sino-American relations, culminating in the so-called great debates of 1999 in China. Following the international opprobrium resulting from the suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests in June 1989, the US–China relationship suffered through a series of crises relating to Taiwan’s democratisation, allegations of espionage and non-proliferation issues. The NATO-led intervention in Kosovo and accidental US bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade prompted an examination of the Deng-era consensus that the prevailing international trend was toward peace and development.32 China’s defence budget grew, as did investment in new capabilities, such as lasers and hit-to-kill systems that could be used in anti-satellite and missile-defence roles.33

Throughout this period, China sought to persuade the US to adopt no-first-use. These efforts were unsuccessful, although the two sides agreed to mutual ‘non-targeting’ in 1996. This effort was probably driven by growing Chinese concern about the effect of future US missile-defence deployments on the credibility of Chinese deterrent, which rested on a small number of DF-5 ICBMs. Those deployments were relatively recent; while China had deployed a pair of operational silos in the early 1980s, deployment of all 18 DF-5s was not complete until the early 1990s. Just as China was potentially deploying a credible deterrent, the US embarked on a programme of strategic modernisation, including missile defences, which by virtue of its size appeared to threaten China’s small deterrent.

As noted in the preceding section, Chinese experts and officials have long treated a bilateral no-first-use pledge as a rough proxy for whether the US accepts that China has a credible deterrent and so cannot be subject to US nuclear coercion. China’s diplomatic efforts to seek this pledge are roughly analogous to internal US debates about whether it should accept so-called mutual vulnerability with China.

Despite occasional expressions of concern among Western analysts, no-first-use – as an ideological assertion about the nature of nuclear weapons – appears likely to remain the defining feature of Chinese nuclear-weapons policy. This likelihood may be obscured by a Western tendency to seize on statements by Chinese officials that call into question China’s commitment to it. These doubts are, in large part, motivated by a sincere belief among many Western analysts that any such pledge lacks credibility.34 So, for example, when a Chinese expert, Chu Shulong, admitted that China might abandon the policy in extreme circumstances, the Office of the Secretary of Defense highlighted this as evidence of growing doubts about no-first-use.35

Most recently, a Chinese Defence White Paper omitted any reference to no-first-use, leading to concerns that China might be on the verge of dropping, modifying or otherwise making ambiguous the pledge.36 An early response from a well-known Chinese military academic was somewhat equivocal, reiterating the principle but also implying that US policies might force a reassessment. Subsequent official statements have been more direct. General Qi Jianguo, the Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the PLA, used a speech at the 2013 Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore to gently chide those who made such a ‘close study’ of Chinese texts. ‘I want to solemnly declare that the Chinese government will never abandon the policy of no first use of nuclear weapons, which has been maintained for half a century. It has been proven in reality that it not only meets the national benefits of China, but also benefits the survival of all human beings.’37

Under the circumstances, those in China who would change China’s policy of no-first-use are as unlikely to succeed as those who would wish to see Washington adopt a no-first use policy. The Second Artillery’s shift toward conventional missiles, with a much more offensively oriented doctrine, would seem to indicate a relative decline in the position of nuclear weapons in Chinese security policy, rather than a prelude to the embrace of a different doctrine. This trend probably reflects a continuing view among Chinese leaders that nuclear weapons are intended for political coercion. In this sense, the Chinese view appears to represent historical continuity.38

There remain real questions about how China would reinforce deterrence should it appear to falter or even begin to fail. The most recent Defense White Paper, alongside some Chinese texts, makes clear that China plans on using alert levels to signal resolve. ‘If China comes under a nuclear threat’, the 2013 paper states, ‘the nuclear missile force will act upon the orders of the [Central Military Commission], go into a higher level of readiness, and get ready for a nuclear counterattack to deter the enemy from using nuclear weapons against China.’39 Similar concepts are found in the chapter on Second Artillery operations in The Science of Campaigns and The Science of Second Artillery Campaigns.40

As will be discussed in Chapter Four, China appears to store warheads separately from missiles in peacetime, while keeping its first generation of ballistic missiles unfuelled and its solid-fuelled, road-mobile missiles in garrison.41 In a crisis, these units would disperse, either to hardened locations where they could ride out an attack or to other camouflaged locations. China has an extensive network of underground facilities to allow Second Artillery units to ride out an attack.42 Chinese leaders appear to believe that such measures will enhance the survivability of the Chinese nuclear forces, as well as convey the will to retaliate against a nuclear attack.

Chinese materials also touch on the communications strategy that would accompany a decision to increase the alert status of the Second Artillery, noting the importance of using radio, television and the Internet to publicise the step of placing China’s nuclear forces on alert. As noted in the preceding section, the Second Artillery might propose altering the no-first-use policy in conjunction with these steps if Chinese leaders believed that an adversary planned to use conventional weapons to create mass casualties or to negate China’s nuclear forces.

A major issue today for Chinese attitudes regarding nuclear weapons is the growing possibility that US conventional weapons could hold China’s nuclear forces at risk. Although most serious US analysts do not believe conventional weapons will substitute for nuclear ones in missions relating to destroying enemy nuclear forces, at least not in the foreseeable future, Chinese observers are increasingly alarmed by the potential of highly precise conventional forces to deny China its deterrent, perhaps in conjunction with missile-defence deployments. ‘Chinese officials and analysts working on nuclear deterrence issues have expressed deep worries about the effect that CPGS (Conventional Prompt Global Strike) could have on the survivability of China’s nuclear arsenal’, as James Acton has noted. ‘In fact, Chinese concerns about the effect of advanced conventional capabilities on the nuclear balance may be more acute than more documented concerns about ballistic missile defense.’43

Whereas Chinese policymakers have treated nuclear weapons as essentially unusable, suitable only for coercion, the possession of precise conventional weapons appears to place fewer constraints on China’s adversaries. If no-first-use is an ideological statement about the inherently limited role for nuclear weapons, it poses questions about how to deal with conventional weapons that might have strategic effects. Although China appears to emphasise defence measures to enhance the survivability of its nuclear forces, the matter does not seem settled among Chinese strategists, and has emerged as a neuralgic issue in Chinese-American dialogues.

The growing Chinese concern about CPGS and other capabilities suggests that Beijing is anxious about how increasingly accurate conventional weapons may shape the international security environment.44 China itself is investing heavily in conventionally armed short-, medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs and IRBMs) and cruise missiles, as well as anti-satellite weapons that would allow Beijing additional options to deal with US military capabilities. Beijing is also developing so-called boost-glide systems to enhance its growing conventional-strike capabilities.

Such capabilities, however, more deeply entangle US and Chinese conventional and nuclear forces, creating new and potentially unexpected risks. China’s anti-satellite programmes, which may in part reflect a desire to counteract US missile-defence efforts, have become an important rationale for the US conventional-strike capabilities that alarm Beijing. Ultimately, the possibility that Beijing might disable US satellites that provide missile warning, reconnaissance, navigation or communications might make escalation to nuclear use more likely, not less.

Neither Washington nor Beijing has fully thought through the implications of these new technologies, nor do the parties have a sufficiently developed strategic dialogue that allows them to begin addressing potential sources of strategic instability. These challenges are explored more fully in Chapter Five.


The evolution of China’s thinking about nuclear weapons roughly mirrors the country’s transition from the Maoist era of ideological certainty and technical inferiority to its present, market-oriented authoritarianism. Chinese leaders initially viewed the task of the country’s strategic weapons programmes as one of mastery – mastering the same technologies as other major powers. Strategic considerations during this period were largely limited to Maoist conceptions of the role of nuclear weapons, further constrained by the vicious leadership politics that distorted policy planning, slowed the pace of deployments and interfered with the establishment of command-and-control arrangements. During this period, the various ideological conceptions underpinning China’s limited deterrent that were initially expressed in the notion of the atom bomb as a paper tiger came to be imbued in the policy of no-first-use. Chinese leaders have consistently seen nuclear weapons as, fundamentally, tools of political coercion rather than useful battlefield instruments.

Following Mao’s death, Deng Xiaoping consolidated power, opening an era of reform that curtailed the worst excesses of the Mao years. China during this period began deployments of nuclear forces such as the DF-4 and DF-5, and the Second Artillery began a process of developing plausible operational concepts for it nuclear forces.

Much of what appears to be a debate within China over no-first-use is probably better understood as part of this process of developing plausible operational concepts for the Second Artillery’s nuclear forces within the strictures of an enshrined ideological statement about the role of nuclear weapons. No-first-use is a long-term component of nuclear strategy and imposes real challenges for Chinese planners as the security environment changes. It’s particularly complicated by the now looming prospect of US conventional-strike capabilities, which raise questions relating to strategic stability that neither country has yet to fully grasp.


1 Chen Jian and David L. Wilson (eds), ‘All Under the Heaven is Great Chaos: Beijing, the Sino-Soviet Border Clashes, and the Turn Toward Sino-American Rapprochement, 1968–1969’, Cold War International History Project, Bulletin 11, 1998: p. 159,

2 Address by Zhou Enlai at the Plenary Session of the Fourth Meeting of the State Council, 31 January 1955,

3 Chen Jian, Mao’s China and the Cold War (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2001), pp. 85-117.

4 The Eisenhower administration decided in May 1953, in principle, to consider the use of nuclear weapons if armistice negotiations broke down. There is no credible evidence that the decision was conveyed to the Chinese. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles later claimed to have conveyed a threat through Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, but Nehru denied this and declassified accounts of the meeting support Nehru.

5 Guo Hualun, Study of Mao Zedong’s Military Thinking: Essays on Military Issues of the Communist Bandits (Republic of China: Unknown imprint, 1 January 1973). A partial translation appeared in John Wilson Lewis and Xue Litai, China Builds the Bomb (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1988), p. 70. A full translation is available in this volume.

6 Ralph L. Powell, ‘Great Powers and Atomic Bombs Are “Paper Tigers”’, China Quarterly, vol. 23, 1965, pp. 55–63.

7 J. Chester Cheng, Ch’inglien Han, Gene T. Hsiao and Yin-tso Hsiung (eds), The Politics of the Chinese Red Army: A Translation of the Bulletin of Activities of the People’s Liberation Army (Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 1966). For a historical perspective on the importance of these documents, see Eugene W. Wu, ‘Library Resources for Contemporary China Studies’, in David Shambaugh (ed.), American Studies of Contemporary China (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1997), p. 266. For analysis of these documents, see John W. Lewis, ‘China’s Secret Military Papers: Continuities and Revelations’, pp. 68-78 and Alice Langley Hsieh, ‘China’s Secret Military Papers: Military Doctrines and Strategy’, pp. 79-99, both in China Quarterly, vol. 18, April–June 1964. See also J. Chester Cheng, ‘Problems of Chinese Military Leadership as Seen in the Secret Military Papers’, Asian Survey, June 1964, pp. 864–72.

8 Powell, ‘Great Powers and Atomic Bombs Are “Paper Tigers”.

9 ‘Statement of the Chinese Government Advocating the Complete, Thorough, Total and Resolute Prohibition and Destruction of Nuclear Weapons Proposing a Conference of the Government Heads of All Countries of the World’, 31 July, 1963, published in Peking Review, vol. 6, no. 31, 2 August 1963, pp. 7–8.

10 China was sensitive to the political costs of atmospheric testing. Initial Chinese plans called for the fourth nuclear test to be conducted underground, despite the results of early underground tests being unsatisfactory. China later conducted many nuclear tests using aircraft in order to reduce the resulting fallout, both radioactive and political.

11 Morton Halperin, Communist China and arms control (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 1965).

12 Zhou Enlai, ‘Cable to All Heads of Government Proposing a World Summit Conference on the Prohibition and Destruction of All Nuclear Weapons’, Peking Review, vol. 8, no. 43, 23 October 1964, p. 6.

13 ‘Statement of the Government of the People’s Republic of China’, 16 October 1964, available in Peking Review, vol. 7, no. 42, 16 October 1964, pp. ii–iv.

14 Chinese government statement, ‘Protest Against U.S. War Provocation’, Peking Review, vol. 8, no. 1, 1 January 1965, p. 20.

15 China’s nuclear testing programme is described in Chapter Two. The development of China’s ballistic-missile programme is described in Chapter Three.

16 The Cultural Revolution in China lasted until the death of Mao and the arrest of the so-called ‘Gang of Four’ in October 1976.

17 In addition to Zhang’s account (Zhang Yunsheng, ‘Discussing Lin Biao’s “Number 1 Order”,’ (in Chinese) China News Digest, 14 January 2003,, other accounts are Mei Xinsheng and Gao Xiaoling, Memories of Lin Biao’s Secretary, (China Federation of Literacy and Art Circles Publishing Corporation, 1988), pp. 316–24; Tu Men and Xiao Sike, Super Trial, (Jinan, 1992) pp. 204–09; and Chi Zehou ‘In Biao and the “Number 1 Order” Revisited,’ China News Digest, 11 February 2003,

18 Li Zhishui, The Private Life of Chairman Mao (London: Chatto & Windus, 1994), pp. 504–19.

19 Nie returned to Beijing in February 1970, ostensibly for medical treatment. He managed to meet Mao, who urged him to stay in Beijing, and submitted his formal request to do so through Zhou, thus cutting out Lin.

20 John Lewis and Xue Litai, Imagined Enemies: China Prepares for Uncertain War (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006), p. 175. See also: Frederick C. Teiwes and Warren Sun, The Tragedy of Lin Biao: Riding the Tiger During the Cultural Revolution (London, Hurst, 1996).

21 Ibid., pp. 61–62.

22 Ibid., p. 64.

23 This is what Saudi Arabia did when it alerted its DF-3 missiles in response to Iraqi missile attacks in 1991. See Khaled bin Sultan, Desert Warrior: Personal View of the Gulf War by the Joint Forces Commander (New York: Harper Perrenial, 1996).

24 Communist China’s Weapons Program for Strategic Attack, NIE 13-8-71. Available at:

25 John Lewis and Xue Litai, ‘Making China’s Nuclear War Plan’, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, vol. 68, no. 5, September 2012, pp. 45–65. This article is based on a longer Chinese article by Lewis and Xue.

26 Ibid., p. 48.

27 Weishe is often used for concepts of both deterrence and compellence.

28 For a description of recent debates, see Michael S. Chase, ‘China’s Transition to a More Credible Nuclear Deterrent: Implications and Challenges for the United States’, Asia Policy, vol. 16, July 2013, pp. 85–88,; and Taylor Fravel and Evan Medeiros, ‘China’s Search for Assured Retaliation’, International Security, vol. 35, no. 2, Fall 2010, pp. 78–80.

29 ‘China military eyes preemptive nuclear attack in event of crisis’, Kyodo News, 5 January 2011.

30 For a discussion of these passages, see Gregory Kulacki, ‘Chickens Talking With Ducks: The U.S.-Chinese Nuclear Dialogue’, Arms Control Today, October 2011. Available at:

32 Michael Chase has argued that these debates resulted in a reaffirmation that ‘peace and development remained the main theme of the times’, although leavened with ‘greater concerns about U.S. strategic intentions and a consensus in favor of higher defense spending’. See Chase, ‘China’s Transition to a More Credible Nuclear Deterrent’, Asia Policy, vol. 16, July 2013; David M. Finkelstein, ‘China Reconsiders its National Security: “The Great Peace and Development Debate of 1999”’, CNA Corporation, December 2000,

33 Gregory Lewis and Jeffrey Kulacki, ‘Understanding the Chinese ASAT Test’, Union of Concerned Scientists,

34 Annual Report to Congress: Military Power of the People’s Republic of China 2006,

35 The translated title of the article was ‘PRC Expert Warns PRC May Renounce “No-First-Use” of Nuclear Weapons in War Time’, with the actual title being ‘PRC Expert: China’s Policy on Nuclear Weapons Remains Unchanged’. Chu did admit that he could not anticipate every circumstance, but the overall tone of the article was unequivocal, stating that ‘there isn’t the slightest indication that China’s government will let go of this promise’, quoting Chu saying he had ‘not heard any leader on any occasion state China will change or let go of this position. Never.’ Available at

36 ‘The Diversified Employment of China’s Armed Forces’, Xinhua, 16 April 2013,

37 Speech by Qi Jianguo, ‘New Trends in Asia-Pacific Security’, 2 June 2013, Singapore, at IISS Shangri-La Dialogue,

38 For an explication of Chinese nuclear strategy, see Sun Xiangli, ‘Analysis of China’s Nuclear Strategy’, China Security, Autumn 2005, pp. 23–27, (English-language version: Sun, ‘2005 Reports of International Arms Control and Disarmament’, China Arms Control And Disarmament Association, World Knowledge Press, Beijing, 2005) and Sun Xiangli, ‘Zhongguo Hezhane Xingzhi yu Tedian Fenxi’, Zhane Yanjiu, no. 9, 2006, pp. 23–28.

39 ‘The Diversified Employment of China’s Armed Forces’.

40 The initial translation for these operations is ‘anti-nuclear deterrence combat’. However, ‘counter-nuclear coercion operations’ comes closer to the intended meaning. The term is discussed in the 2000 edition of Science of Campaigns and the 2004 Science of Second Artillery Campaigns.

41 Mark Stokes, ‘China’s Nuclear Warhead Storage and Handling System’, 12 March 2010,

42 Given China’s nuclear policy of no-first-use, and until recently its limited ballistic-missile early-warning capability, Beijing had assumed it might have to absorb an initial nuclear blow prior to engaging in nuclear counter-attack. Nuclear survivability was particularly critical given China’s relatively small number of nuclear weapons and the development by potential adversaries of modern, precision munitions. In recent years, advanced construction design has allowed militaries to go deeper underground to complicate adversarial targeting. For a description of China’s network of underground sites for the Second Artillery, see Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2011, p. 36,

43 James Acton, ‘The Dragon Dance: U.S.-China Security Cooperation’, Carnegie, 29 November 2012, See also Lora Saalman, ‘China and the U.S. Nuclear Posture Review’, The Carnegie Papers (Beijing: Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy, 2011), p. 9,

44 As a part of the discussion surrounding the 2013 White Paper, Yao Yunzhu, director of China’s Academy of Military Science, specifically noted: ‘The United States is developing a series of conventional strategic strike capabilities. Once deployed, they could have the capability to strike China’s nuclear arsenal and make China’s NFU policy redundant.’ See Yao Yunzhu, ‘China Will Not Change Its Nuclear Policy’, China US Focus, 22 April 2013,

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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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