(Bloomberg) -- Less than a year after starting a company to develop Chinese aircraft engines, a leading aerospace expert and a battered Shanghai property developer launched China’s first high-altitude airship. They called it the “Dream Come True.”
That 2015 partnership between Beihang University Professor Wu Zhe and Shanghai Nanjiang Group Holdings, a company known for luxury villas and apartment buildings, came under global scrutiny last week. The entity they created — Beijing Nanjiang Aerospace Technology Co. — was among six firms sanctioned by the US for their alleged role in the Chinese military’s balloon program, which the Biden administration says is part of a global surveillance system.
China has a long history of fostering civil-military partnerships to make technological advances. And with the People’s Liberation Army interested in expanding its reach in the “near-space” region — a zone 20 kilometers (12 miles) to about 100 kilometers above the surface — the alliance made sense.
Wu had done research and development on systems for fighter jets, unmanned aerial vehicles and helicopters, and made “significant contributions” to the application of stealth technology. That’s according to a now-deleted biography of the researcher on Beihang University’s website.
Shanghai Nanjiang Group, for its part, was still flush with cash from China’s burgeoning property boom but needed to diversify after a bruising real estate crackdown in Shanghai.
Success came quickly. In October 2015, Beijing Nanjiang worked with Wu’s university team and launched Dream Come True at Xilinhot, Inner Mongolia, according to a state media report. It was, the report claimed, the world’s first successfully-completed flight trial of a fully-functional near-space airship.
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The airship was able to monitor the ground and transmit audio and images, according to an article last year in Shipborne Weapons, a leading Chinese military magazine. The team behind Dream Come True said the breakthrough meant China was “at the same pace, if not even ahead of the US” in terms of flight engine development.
Official commentaries in Chinese state media have long recognized near-space as an important arena for the military, with an army newspaper report in 2005 calling near-space flight engines a “new star in aerial warfare.” A government-backed research fund launched a 190 million yuan ($28 million) program from 2007 to 2015 on the issue.
Yet the 2015 launch of Dream Come True would also appear to be the highlight of Wu’s collaboration with Beijing Nanjiang. Four years later, Beijing Nanjiang’s near-space program ended, the project’s owner said in a 2019 financial report. Beijing Nanjiang declared bankruptcy on Nov. 21, 2022.
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But Wu, who turns 66 this month, continued his ventures. In July 2019, Wu — who moved to head the Dongguan Beihang Research Institute — launched another unmanned airship that flew over the US and around the world, according to the state media. That airship, called “Chasing Clouds,” was a “big fellow” about a hundred meters long and weighing several tons, Wu said.
“This is the first time that mankind could fly an aerodynamically-controlled stratospheric airship across the world at an altitude of 20,000 meters,” Wu was quoted as saying. In another interview with Dongguan’s local media, Wu said that stratospheric airships could be used for “aerial surveillance and disaster monitoring.”
Wu didn’t stop there. He is also listed as a supervisor for Dongguan Lingkong Remote Sensing Technology Co., according to Qichacha, which provides corporate data on Chinese companies. Dongguan Lingkong — also sanctioned by the US last week — specializes in airship remote sensing, airship sales, and solar battery assembling.
At Dongguan Lingkong, Wu and his team were behind a number of patents covering topics from airship design to the invention of a “course-adjustable stratospheric balloon.”
Repeated attempts to reach Wu through the university and companies he is affiliated with were unsuccessful.
Wu isn’t the only force behind China’s balloon program, but he’s emerged as a key player. A review of media reports, corporate filings and patent databases show Wu is linked to at least four of the six companies targeted by the US last week. They include Eagles Men Aviation Science and Technology Group Co. and Shanxi Eagles Men Aviation Science and Technology Group Co.
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None of the blacklisted companies replied to emailed requests for comment. In addition, calls to Beijing Nanjiang, Shanxi Eagles Men and Beihang University were unanswered. An employee at Eagles Men hung up after a Bloomberg News reporter identified himself.
“These companies seem to specialize in technologies related to space-based surveillance/remote sensing, and they thus are targets for US sanctions related to China’s alleged spy balloon,” said Li Nan, visiting senior research fellow at the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore, author of the book Civil-Military Relations in Post-Deng China: From Symbiosis to Quasi-Institutionalization.
Some of them may also be smaller, non-state companies sourced for related technologies and components, suggesting the diversifying trend of China’s military-civilian fusion program,” Li said.
It is unclear how the six companies targeted by the US are exactly linked to the PLA. But beyond a close history of Chinese firms working with the military and state-run enterprises, there are clues on the companies’ websites.
According to Qichacha’s database, Beijing Nanjiang said it caters to the needs of civil-military projects. Eagles Men said in a company bio that it has obtained certificates to produce weapons for the military, with its products and technologies widely used in China’s national defense and public security.
China Electronics Technology Group Corporation 48th Research Institute — another sanctioned firm — is linked to a state-owned conglomerate that develops products including anti-drone systems and blimps, and has been repeatedly hit by US sanctions. Guangzhou Tian-Hai-Xiang Aviation Technology Co. said it had “benefited from many years of care” from State Council departments, the military and police.
M. Taylor Fravel, author of Active Defense: China’s Military Strategy Since 1949, said that whether the various companies’ ties are direct or indirect with the PLA, “It would appear that the PLA was able to use technology developed by some of the private firms to develop a balloon surveillance program.”
It’s something Wu argued for nearly two decades ago.
In a 2005 op-ed on the Communist Party newspaper Guangming Daily, Wu argued that China should do more to promote universities working with the national security apparatus.
“With better coordination, I believe they could make newer and bigger contributions to the modernization of national defense technology,” he wrote.
--With assistance from Tao Zhang.
(Updates with analyst comment in 17th paragraph. A previous version of this story corrected the date of the balloon’s first launch.)
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