Why China’s billionaire space enthusiasts should have eyes behind their head

Now that Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson have made their trips to space, other billionaires are bound to follow.

China’s ultra-rich are also looking for adventure and business opportunities in the skies, but they’ll be keeping their feet firmly on the ground.

The country’s tycoons are steering clear of space tourism and the type of exploration that Elon Musk is pursuing even further afield, instead focusing on businesses like satellite manufacturing and rocket launching that support China’s ambitions in space.

“The government likes to get credit — bragging rights — for achievements in space,” said Lincoln Hines, an assistant professor and China expert at the U.S. Air War College in Montgomery, Alabama.

“The government wants to see the private sector as a complement to the state, filling a very niche role.”

Second only to the U.S. as source of the world’s top 500 billionaires, China has plenty of wealthy individuals looking to take part.

Li Shufu’s Zhejiang Geely Holding Group Co. said in February it received a license to make satellites, with annual capacity of more than 500 at its facility in eastern China.

Shunwei Capital, backed by billionaire Xiaomi Corp. co-founder Lei Jun, has invested in companies like satellite producer Galaxy Space.

Property developer Country Garden Holdings Co., controlled by China’s richest woman, Yang Huiyan, in 2019 led a fundraising round for rocket-launch startup Land Space Technology Corp.

When it comes to satellites and rocket launches, “China has recognized the usefulness of tapping the private sector,” said Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, head of the Nuclear and Space Policy Initiative at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi.

Their ambitions, grand as they might be, contrast with the daredevil, headline-grabbing exploits of the likes of Bezos, Branson and Jared Isaacman, the founder of Shift4 Payments Inc. who is booked to orbit Earth on a craft made by Space Exploration Technologies Corp. Musk has talked about his desire to travel to Mars but has yet to commit to a date for his first space voyage.

In China, with President Xi Jinping’s government targeting high-profile characters like Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.’s former chairman Jack Ma, billionaires are more wary of upstaging the state for a few minutes of weightlessness.

“The Party wants to remind these billionaires who’s really in charge,” Hines said. “I don’t think there’s any major, charismatic leader of any of these Chinese space companies.”

China landed a rover on Mars in May and then last month sent astronauts to work on its under-construction space station.

Future plans include establishing a research station on the moon. Chinese astronauts have never visited the International Space Station, and a U.S. policy first enacted in 2011 prohibits most contact between NASA and its Chinese counterparts.

China now has more than 150 companies focusing on everything from launch vehicles and satellites to ground stations and downstream applications, according to Masayasu Ishida, a Tokyo-based director with Kearney and chief executive officer of the Spacetide Foundation, a non-profit that organizes conferences focused on space businesses.

Chinese startups can count on generous financial support. The country’s commercial space companies attracted $1.5 billion in investment last year, up from $800 million in 2019, Ishida said. With governments — including those at the province level — accounting for half of the total, he expects the momentum to continue.

“The Chinese space industry is still in the early stage of development,” Ishida said. “In the future, there are possibilities for non-space industry players to step into the industry.”

For now, the ambitious space plans of Geely’s Li are behind schedule. The company said in February it would launch satellites in the first half of 2021 but it hasn’t made any announcements about them since. A Geely spokesman declined to comment.

It’s only a matter of time before more Chinese tycoons move in to build their space businesses, said Blaine Curcio, Hong Kong-based founder of Orbital Gateway Consulting, a research firm focused on space and satellite telecommunications.

“There are quite a lot of centimillionaires and billionaires that may be sniffing around,” Curcio said. “You’re going to see more billionaires getting involved in the sector, trying to commercialize the infrastructure being put into place.”