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Rules to Explore the Heavens: an Overview of Chinese National Space Law

Updated: Oct 1, 2021

Launch of Tianwen-1 from Wenchang on Hainan, 23 July 2020 ©️ China News Service / CC BY 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Space: the Final Frontier. There is nothing as mysterious and fascinating as the vast, largely unknown universe beyond our home planet. After centuries of humankind’s quiet admiration and intense study of the night skies, in 1957, the Soviets successfully launched Sputnik I, the first artificial satellite to orbit the Earth: it was the dawn of the Space Age. Soon other countries started their own national space programs – of course, the main competition was between the US and the USSR, in what would be later known as the Cold War’s Space Race.

On April 24, 1970, the People’s Republic of China also entered the Space Age by launching its first artificial satellite in orbit. It was called 东方红一号 (Dōngfānghóng Yīhào) after the revolutionary song “The East is Red”, which the spacecraft was able to broadcast. Since this memorable date, China’s journey into outer space has yielded major successes, such as the launch of the core section of its 天宫 (Tiāngōng, “Heavenly Palace”) space station, named 天和 (Tiānhé,“Harmony of the Heavens”), in April 2021 and the landing of the 天问-1 (Tianwen-1, “Quest for Heavenly Truth”) probe on Mars in May of the same year (Xinhua, 2021).

Yet unlike other spacefaring nations, China lacks a general, comprehensive space law. This can be explained by the fact that the Chinese space program focused for a long time solely on filling in the technological gap with the superpowers, temporarily postponing the enhancement of a national legal framework (Delgado-Bonal, 2021). The lack of substantial space legislation could also be linked, some suggest, to the strong military character of the original space program – even though today the civil and commercial projects are growing in importance, they could be complying with regulations of military nature, largely not disclosed (Yeshchuk and Vasina, 2019).

This does not mean that there is no regulation for space activities in China. The first documents to consider are the five Space Treaties negotiated and signed under the United Nations’ umbrella between 1967 and 1979. China has ratified the first four of them. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 provides a list of core principles: for example, no nation can declare sovereignty or place weapons of mass destruction in space. It also mentions other peculiar space issues which have been later dealt with more in depth by the following treaties.

The Rescue Agreement of 1968 focuses on the rescue and assistance of astronauts in distress, who must be promptly returned to their launching State. The Liability Convention of 1972 affirms that the launching State is “absolutely liable to pay compensation for damage caused by its space object”. Lastly, the Registration Convention of 1975 provides that the States shall maintain a national register of the space objects they launch and communicate to the Secretary-General of the United Nations its core information such as registration number, orbital parameters, and general function of the object.

Written in the first decades of the Space Age, these Treaties provide a good legal framework for space activities; however, two elements should be taken into consideration. First, the current technological advancements have led many to call for new negotiations to update and enhance the ex