The Swords of China Into Plowshares
Part 2 of 3 (Click here for Part 1)
Prof. Shimon Silman, RYAL Institute and Touro College

Plowshares Into Swords – The Development of China’s Nuclear Technology

In part 1 we explained that the transformation of military technology to peaceful uses – "swords into plowshares" – that is sweeping the globe, includes China. In fact, it was a group of Chinese physicists who identified this transformation as the trend of history.

But just a few decades ago, before the declaration of "swords into plowshares," when China was first developing its nuclear weapons, all of its civilian resources were put at the disposal of the military to develop weapons, especially nuclear weapons. This phase of China’s history could be characterized by "Plowshares Into Swords" (a phrase found in the Prophet Yoel, who was instructing the people to prepare for war. My appreciation to Levi Yitzchok Silman for bringing this verse to my attention.)

In this part of the paper we will trace the history of the development of China’s nuclear technology and in part 3 we will describe the transformation of its nuclear technology to peaceful uses – the "swords into plowshares" phase. Our report is based on a paper of Prof. Yitzhak Shichor of the Hebrew University entitled "Peaceful Fallout: The Conversion of China’s Military-Nuclear Complex to Civilian Use."


Throughout the Mao era, from the early 1950’s to the late 1970’s, China’s nuclear complex was launched, built, and expanded primarily for military ends, using considerable civilian resources including funds, manpower, and equipment. China’s leadership was aware of the peaceful use of nuclear energy and technology as early as the 1950’s and had done some initial research in this direction, but civilian considerations were subordinate to military considerations. This was especially so since the late 1950’s, as its threat perception increased and its relations with the U.S. and Russia deteriorated. Its scarce economic resources were allocated to developing a military-nuclear complex, and its civilian output was only about 5% by the late 1970’s, at the end of the Mao era.

The initial stages of China’s nuclear weapons development began in about 1952. China had recently established the Research Institute of Modern Physics, drawing on Chinese physicists at home and abroad. Those who returned from abroad brought with them personal connections, books, equipment, and materials, which provided the foundation for China’s nuclear research.

In January 1955 China and Russia began collaborating on nuclear research. In March 1956, China, Russia and 10 other socialist countries formed the Joint Atomic and Nuclear Research Institute in Dubna (near Moscow). The next month, Mao Zedung declared that China "would not only have more aircraft and large guns, but also atomic bombs." Russia continued its nuclear scientific and technological assistance to China, and on October 15, 1957, the two governments signed an "Agreement on Producing New Weapons and Military Technical Equipment and Building Comprehensive Nuclear Industry in China."

Early in 1958, however, Russia secretly decided to back off from this deal and, as Sino-Soviet relations began to deteriorate, China decided to start all over again and develop an atomic bomb on its own. In the spring of 1960, scores of scientists were mobilized to work on nuclear weapons and missiles projects for the Nuclear Weapons Research Institute. Despite a major setback later that year, when Russia suddenly stopped the supply of equipment and recalled hundreds of nuclear experts, who took blueprints and information back with them, China proceeded with its plan to develop an atomic bomb, more determined than ever.

At this point the plowshares into swords conversion took place in China. Much effort was exerted to ensure the supply of all the manpower, materials, and equipment needed by the nuclear industry. By the end of 1963, over 400 factories, institutes, colleges and universities all over China contributed to the effort. Throughout the 1960’s and 70’s, China’s nuclear weapons development proceeded at a steady pace. As its nuclear program gathered momentum, China’s threat perception increased. Mao claimed, "If we are not to be bullied in the present-day world, we cannot do without the bomb." Consequently, he gave priority to nuclear weapons development over conventional weapons development. Even the natural spin-off of nuclear technology – nuclear power for civilian use – was very slow in developing in China. Strategic weapons programs outdistanced all other modern economic activities in China.

Military-Civilian Combination

In the late 1970’s, after Mao’s death, China put forward a policy that its surplus military manpower and equipment be used for civilian purposes. This was not yet a "swords into plowshares" policy, since China’s threat perception was still very high, considering Russia as the most immediate threat to its security. The policy was put forth primarily for economic reasons. They realized that much of the nuclear and conventional defense industry potential, used in the past almost exclusively for military production, had a surplus capacity, which could be used for civilian purposes. It was a matter of putting this surplus to practical use.

This policy was described by the Chinese as "preserving military needs while converting to civilian production." It was a sort of dual-use technology policy – assuring military production while developing civilian goods.

In the case of China’s nuclear technology, there were four main obstacles to such conversion: 1) China’s nuclear industry had been developed in total secrecy and under tight security measures, totally ‘secluded from market forces; 2) The technologies it used were dangerous and the nuclear industry was so specialized for military purposes that the existing production facilities and equipment could not be directly converted to civilian production, and its management system, operational methods and work styles were incompatible with the requirements of civilian production; 3) Two thirds of China’s nuclear complex were located in deserts and mountain regions, far away from urban commercial centers; 4) The nuclear industry had no experience in what was to become its principal civilian application – nuclear power plants.

It was necessary to reduce centralized state control and increase flexibility, initiative, and competition. One of the organizational measures taken in this direction in the 1980’s was to allow each of the defense industries to establish its own trading corporations. Several corporations were set up to deal with specific civilian aspects of China’s nuclear industry, such as the China Isotope Co., China Nuclear Instruments and Equipment Corp. and the Nuclear Industry Development Research Center. At the same time, a gradual process of changing the names and the nature of the defense-industrial government ministries began. For example, in 1988, the Ministry of Nuclear Industry was replaced by the China Nuclear Industry General Corporation (CNIGC) under a newly created Ministry of Energy Resources.

With the "swords into plowshares" declaration in 1992, China’s threat perception was greatly reduced, and a genuine "swords into plowshares" process began in China. Russia was no longer the threat that it formerly was and China found that it no longer needed the vast nuclear arsenal it had developed nor the vast army it had organized.

(To be continued.)


When China was first developing its nuclear weapons, all of its civilian resources were put at the disposal of the military to develop weapons. This phase of China’s history could be characterized by "Plowshares Into Swords"


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