Man behind China's 'Dream Come True' boosted balloon programme

China has a long history of fostering civil-military partnerships to make technological advances

Spy Balloon

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 firm known for luxury villas and apartment, came under global scrutiny last week. The entity they created — Beijing Nanjiang Aerospace Technology — 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 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 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 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 in Shipborne Weapons, a Chinese military magazine. Yet the 2015 launch of Dream Come True would also appear to be the highlight of Wu’s collaboration with Beijing Nanjiang. But Wu, who turns 66 this month, continued his ventures. In July 2019, Wu 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. 
In an 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. Dongguan Lingkong — also sanctioned by the US last week — specialises 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.” 
Wu isn’t the only force behind China’s balloon program, but he’s emerged as a key player.

Biden intends to speak with Xi to defuse tensions over balloon

President Joe Biden expects to soon speak with Xi Jinping about the Chinese balloon shot down by the US earlier this month, signaling a desire to end a dispute that has highlighted the fragility of relations between the world’s biggest economies. 
He pledged to “responsibly manage” competition with China “so that it doesn’t veer into conflict.” 

Biden, who plans to visit Europe ahead of the one-year anniversary of the Russian invasion, didn’t specify when he intended to speak with Xi.

First Published: Feb 17 2023 | 10:36 PM IST

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