October 27 of 2018 was supposed to be a historic day for China’s growing aerospace industry. Landspace, a Beijing-based startup, was set to become the first private Chinese firm to launch a rocket into outer space. Then, at 6:40 pm, a fault occurred. Soon after, Landspace declared the mission a failure. A few weeks later, SpaceX completed its 20th successful launch of 2018. It is unfair to draw sweeping conclusions based on the performance of just two companies, but it does serve as a reminder of how far China has to go before it rivals the US as the world’s leading technological power.
For China’s technology sector, the decision of the United States to hit Shenzhen-based telecommunications giant ZTE with a trade ban in April was an abrupt and painful wake-up call. Until then, many in China had grown accustomed to thinking of their country as a global leader in technology. After all, China’s smartphones, high-speed railways and e-commerce platforms were the envy of the world. But in the days following the ban, designed to punish ZTE for violating US sanctions on Iran and North Korea, it became clear that one of China’s most successful companies was totally dependent on American suppliers.