The Fall of Heaven, Episode 1: Red Guard
Editor’s note: This is a serialized five-part story for the Atlantic Council’s Art of Future Warfare project.
Space is a fog of debris, steel rain, and iron snow. Unusable. The Internet is gone. Our Library of Alexandria, the container of all our knowledge, is dead. In the aftermath of the war, past the trials and the armistice, the data reclamation project began in earnest. The United Nations would buy servers, blogs, thumb drives, cached copies of web pages… whatever you could sell. And people needed to sell. The world ran on paper, again… this was true. But it wouldn’t be true forever.
The Winter-Summer War ended 20 years ago. The Winter Powers — the United States, Europe, India, Japan, and Turkey — fought a seven-year war with the Summer powers — China, Russia, Persia, Korea, and Brazil. I aim to record that war in this project.
My name is Stephen Armitage and I am here to talk and to discuss the history of the world. I have gone past thumb drives, mesh implants, servers, or bio-embedded drives to get the intimate details from only the most reliable of sources: People who lived it. This is the UN’s Oral Data Reclamation Project, and it begins below.
This is my first interview for the project. We are in a small pre-war house in a village near Jiuquan in Gansu province, one of the dozen or so to survive the collapse of the Tianti space elevator. Despite twenty years of debris removal and rebuilding, the scars remain. Jiuquan, a spaceport city built on the prolific Chinese space program, has become a ghost town since the government moved the program to Hainan and the Spratleys. Rail doesn’t come here, and the few highways that do are pockmarked or otherwise impassible. It’s a hellhole.
I am sitting with Major General Wang Yuanjing, former commander of the People’s Liberation Army Space Corps, an independent branch merged from parts of the Nuclear Second Artillery Corps and the General Armament Department Space Program. His daughter and caretaker, Wang Meili, sits beside him while he rests in an ancient, faded easy chair. A party chaperone sits on a dusty couch nearby, I am not allowed my antique Dictaphone and have to make due with shorthand notes. A tattered icon of Xi Jinping hangs on the wall. This would prove to be the last, and only, interview granted by the Communist Party.
Eyes closed, the General breathes laboriously through his oxygen mask. The chaperone signals to Wang Meili that the interview can begin, and she pats her father’s leg. He looks up, fondles to remove the mask and instinctively reaches over to a table with an ash-tray full of crushed, discarded cigarettes and a cheap bottle of baijiu. Slow and measured, reading from a script, he begins to speak.
“It is and has been the policy of the Chinese Government to encourage the free and peaceful development of space for the benefit of the Chinese people and all of humanity. We have never violated the treaties of 1967, 2048, or 2069 and maintain that all aggression throughout the so-called “Space War” or “Winter-Summer War” was on the part of the Winter Powers. The Beijing Peace Accords and International War Tribunal of 2111 have exonerated the Chinese Government and the Communist Party of all charges with respect to crimes against peace or crimes against humanity.
“China has cooperated and participated in executing a bold unified strategy for human space exploration, resource exploitation, and global communication. The Chinese government has generously donated land and resources for construction of the United Nations Space Elevator Tianti, in addition to jointly maintaining transportation channels in interspace routes between the Earth and the Moon. I have personally witnessed China’s contributions to the international community and its actions as a responsible world power.
“I, Wang Yuanjing, was the Chief of Staff the space units from 2090 to 2096. My Political Commissar Li Wanhui acceded to that position when I became a Vice-Chairman of the Central Military Commission in 2096. In accordance with wishes of the Chinese people, government, and Party, we conducted our historical mission of space logistics assurance and peaceful space defense. In the 70’s and 80’s we implemented a number of reforms and instituted a series of modernizations for space defense countermeasures.
“One, we assured our territorial sovereignty and defense through space and high technology. We tripled the number of Shenguang laser missile-defense satellites in orbit, completing our land, air, sea, and space-integrated hongdun defense program1. China has always been a responsible nuclear power and maintains its right to defend against aggressive nuclear attacks.
“Second, we independently developed the Fengqun space defense countermeasure system in direct response to the threat of the US-UK LCST system2. The Fengqun was not an offensive weapon, on the contrary it was to be used purely for defense purposes, to defend against debris, conventional warheads, kinetic-kill vehicles, and provocations from the Winter Powers. We deployed over 80 carriers between 2072 and 2090. The United States used the LCST as a method to bypass space armament treaties; we used the Fengqun system to defend against that irresponsible violation.
“Finally, China has promoted development of Hydrogen-3 mining colonies on the lunar surface for use in fusion power plants. In partnership with Russia, China was the earliest of the great powers to establish permanent colonies on the lunar surface. We invested billions of yuan in lunar infrastructure and are a founding member of the International Lunar Claims Commission, a landmark achievement in international, multipolar governance of the utilization of moon resources.
“The Chinese and Russian lunar citizens’ decision to liberate the Winter Powers Marno Rift Valley mining colony was due to a number of provocations from Winter Powers. The most egregious example of aggressive and irresponsible behavior was the 8/21 incident3, which the International Criminal Court and International War Tribunal agree was perpetrated by the United States and the other Winter Powers. Chinese lunar citizens took necessary and appropriate steps to secure the moon from further aggression, ensure the livelihood of Chinese personnel, and to eliminate a persistent cyber threat.
“There were no military personnel involved in the liberation and remain adamant that Summer Powers lunar citizens acted in their own interest in defending the rights and sovereignty of Chinese, Russian, Korean, and Brazilian lunar colonies and space stations.
“The so-called Midway Fleet, claimed as a humanitarian mission to aid the Marno Rift Valley stations, was, in fact, a full-fledged invasion force intent on the destruction of Chinese, Russian, Korean, and Brazilian lunar colonies. The destruction of the Midway Fleet was a defense against this incursion into Summer Power sovereign territory, and to halt the invasion in which it was intending to execute. We reject that the Midway Fleet was a humanitarian aid mission and would like to point out that the fleet was primarily composed of military vessels and autonomous vehicles in clear violation of the treaty of 2069. These acts were undertaken in self-defense and were necessary to preserve the peace and stability of the interspace region.
“It was these acts and the attempted invasion of sovereign lunar territory that forced the so-called Summer Powers to invoke Article XIII of our articles of collective defense and declare war. To further protect the international order from Western aggression, the Chinese government secured the Tianti space elevator in recognition of its potential as a strategic security threat to the Chinese homeland.
“The destruction of the Tianti elevator was not a decision condoned by the Communist Party, nor is the Chinese government directly responsible. Winter Power spies had infiltrated Chinese society and fomented unrest in the Western and Southern provinces. Our electric power, water, gas, and industrial infrastructure had suffered numerous cyber-attacks by the Winter Power. In further acts of unprovoked aggression, Winter Powers began their Wakan-Kush Offensive4 and were nearing China’s Western border, even as amphibious landings on the province of Taiwan further threatened China’s internal stability and security.
“I led a cadre of officers in an attempted overthrow of the righteous and peaceful Chinese Government, against the explicit will of the Party and the people. On August 7th, 2099 I, and I alone, authorized the use of nuclear weapons on Chinese territory, against the Winter Powers, and against the Tianti anchor-station in Jiuquan.
“This traitorous and disloyal act was properly punished by the Chinese Government and Supreme People’s Court with respect to Chinese sovereignty and the heinous and traitorous nature of my crimes. Only by the mercy of the Party and the Chinese people has my life been spared.”
I stare back. “These are your words?”
The old man nods slowly and closes his eyes. I look at the chaperone, who is nodding with the old man. I say thank you and get up to leave. Wang Meili wipes tears away from her eyes, gives her father a hug and escorts me to the front door. She says thank you and hugs me for a bit longer than I was comfortable with. Two PLA guards escort me out of the compound, a storm of dust, ash, and pollution — hard to tell them apart — cause me to put on my goggles and facemask.
I would be halfway to the airfield, bouncing in the backseat of an antique gas guzzler, the only reliable thing out here, before I noticed it. A small piece of paper in my coat pocket, folded tightly into a square, certainly not there before. I would be on the plane back to Beijing before I opened it.
Mr. Armitage, I appreciate your interview, though am deeply ashamed at the circumstances. I authorized the Tianti bomb and ground-based nuclear weapons along the Kush Mountains under direct orders from my superiors. I take the responsibility to save face for my government, my party, and my people. My life was spared because of my sacrifice. There is a saying “牺牲小我，完成大我”, it means to make a sacrifice for the greater good, to sacrifice the small self for the greater self. Those deaths are but a small portion of our people, and my shame is a pittance compared to the pride of our nation.
Although this shame may never be erased, and I may always be remembered a traitor, the nation remains united, the Party still lives, and the war has ended. I regret nothing.
Wang Yuanjing would die from “medical complications” a week later. His death announcement on CCTV would remind the world that he was retroactively stripped of his membership, rank, and grade and sentenced to life imprisonment. He was prosecuted under Chinese law as his treason was an internal Chinese affair. A retrospective on his attempted coup, and the Party’s lack of responsibility, followed soon after.
Stephen Armitage is a researcher for the United Nations, journalist, and war correspondent. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Photo credit: smcde