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Aerospace & Defense

China's quest to become a space power runs through Silk Road city

Automaker Geely drives Xi's dream of rivaling US across the cosmos

Chinese automaker Geely has turned its eyes to a new frontier: space. (Photo courtesy of Zhejiang Geely Holding Group)

BEIJING -- Once a prosperous oasis city on the Silk Road, Korla in China's westernmost region of Xinjiang last month became home to what looks like a huge white golf ball floating on its horizon.

The structure was built by GeeSpace, a subsidiary of China's top privately owned automaker, Zhejiang Geely Holding Group. Its mission: to receive signals from and remotely control satellites in orbit.

"We need to turn our eyes to the vast universe at the same time even as we spread our roots on Earth," Geely Chairman Li Shufu has said. His philosophy, combined with Chinese President Xi Jinping's ambition to turn his country into a space superpower to rival the U.S., helped make the project a reality.

Li and Xi are old drinking buddies who first met back in 2002, when Xi became Communist Party secretary of Zhejiang Province. Xi's full-throated support was instrumental to Geely's acquisition of Sweden's Volvo Cars, as well as its stake in Germany's Daimler. Meanwhile, Geely embodied Xi's vision for China's auto sector by becoming not just a mass producer, but also a major global player.

Li and Xi are now turning their sights to space. Li, who has been dubbed "China's Elon Musk" for branching out into the heavens, is planning to launch a low-Earth-orbit satellite by the end of the year. He aims to accelerate advances in self-driving technology through precise satellite-powered mapping services, with a goal of eventually establishing a global satellite network.

Geespace's tower will communicate with control satellites used to help navigate autonomous cars. (Photo courtesy of Zhejiang Geespace)

Xi has thrown the government's support behind this initiative.

China is using construction of new infrastructure, such as fifth-generation wireless, to bolster the economy after the coronavirus-induced slump. Satellite internet was added to the list April 20, providing business opportunities for nearly 100 private-sector businesses.

The government is also accelerating Xi's touted military-civilian integration strategy in the space industry.

"We far exceeded our expectations with the cooperation and support of the government and the military," said Peng Xiaobo, CEO of Beijing Interstellar Glory Space Technology, or iSpace, to Chinese media after its successful rocket launch last year -- a first for China's private sector.

As the Sino-American battle for technological supremacy heats up, Beijing looks to maximize the vitality of its private sector through military-civil fusion, aiming to become a major power in space by 2030.

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