Greenland: China discreetly launches satellite ground station project

China has ‘officially’ launched a project to set up a satellite ground station in Nuuk, although Greenland’s public and elected representatives were kept in the dark about it for months, in an attempt to avoid concerns about its likely dual-use capabilities. Last May, a ‘launching ceremony’ was held in Greenland, where speakers included the well-known polar scientist in charge of the project and a military pioneer of the Beidou system, China’s alternative to GPS. The event was attended by a public of a hundred ‘élite’ businesspeople, including, in all likelihood, a senior Navy officer, as part of a group holiday; only two Greenlandic representatives were present. While reports were immediately available in Chinese media, the project’s launch went unnoticed in Greenland until I first ‘revealed‘ it last October. A subsequent investigation by journalist Andreas Lindqvist for Greenland’s main newspaper AG, to which I provided help with Chinese-language materials, found the Greenlandic authorities knew nothing about the ‘officially’ launched project, even though it requires government permission. Based on Lindqvist’s research in Greenland and new information from Chinese sources, I am now able to present a fuller picture of the project, its participants and possible dual-use goals.

The atypical embedding of such an event in a tourist trip is, in fact, understandable in the context of the Chinese Party-state’s information management practices, and in particular the way its polar strategy is presented to foreign and domestic audiences. This analysis is backed by the project leader’s own statements, as well as the partial success of what a source in Greenland called a ‘camouflaging’ tactic, at least until my blog and the local press found out. Calls are now emerging for Greenland and Denmark to have full access to data received by the planned station, something the Chinese side has clearly not yet agreed to, and a possible complication for some of the project’s purposes.

Cruising for the Motherland

I mentioned the receiving-station-to-be in October, towards the end of a post about plans to build a Chinese research base in (possibly very northern) Greenland. While the base plans have been covered by Danish journalist Martin Breum for Greenlandic and Danish media, the satellite-station announcement, available from Chinese sources since early June, remained unreported in Western languages other than my blog until a recent article by Andreas Lindqvist came out in last week’s AG (Atuagagdliutit/Grønlandsposten; paywalled). I provided Lindqvist with information about the project from Chinese sources and background on its leader. As we will see, a rather surprising picture emerged after comparing them with what BJU’s Greenlandic counterparts were aware of.

In June, Sciencenet (科学网), a web portal maintained by the China Science Daily Publishing House (中国科学报社), under the Chinese Academy of Sciences and other state scientific organisations, reported on a somewhat ambiguously named ‘launching ceremony’ (启动仪式) for a satellite ground station, held in May in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland’s airport hub. The ceremony had the trappings of an official event: BNU’s representative, Cheng Xiao 程晓, delivered a speech on his university’s Arctic activities, and the importance of the project for “serving the people of Greenland, improving climate change research and serving [China’s] national strategy”. Together with its local partners, state-owned telecom Tele-Post and the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources (Pinngortitaleriffik/Grønlands Naturinstitut), BNU “officially announced the launch” of the Nuuk ground station project. The ceremony was attended by Karl Zinglersen, GIS manager and database expert at the Institute, Flemming Enemark of Tele-Post, and “more than 100 domestic [i.e. Chinese] representatives”, surely a visible crowd among Kangerlussuaq’s population of 493.

As per the banner: [格陵]兰遥[感]卫星[地]面站启动[仪]式 “Greenland remote-sensing satellite ground station project launching ceremony”. Kangerlussuaq, May 30, 2017. Source: Sciencenet.

Despite its conspicuousness, and its significance for China’s engagement with Greenland, the event wasn’t reported in local media until last week’s AG piece. In it, Tele-Post confirmed the project existence, although the company “has no more details on the character of the research data that the ground station is to receive.” Zinglersen, the GIS expert at the Natural Resources Institute, gave a less spectacular account of the Kangerlussuaq ‘launching ceremony’. It was held at Roklubben, a local restaurant. In Zinglersen’s recollection, Cheng Xiao’s group included “a couple of researchers” (on which ‘researchers’, see below), but most of the Chinese visitors were tourists on a trip organised by Souluniq (心友汇), a Guangzhou-based ‘travellers’ club’ catering to a high-end base. Zinglersen received no explanation as to why Cheng’s delegation chose to come with a tourist group, rather than in his academic capacity as he’d done on other occasions. According to the AG article, the actual station will essentially consist of a seven-metre antenna to be installed along Tele-Post’s existing Nuuk equipment. Cheng won Zinglersen’s support for the project by offering him access to images from Chinese satellites ‘for free or at a low price’. A relationship with him and the Institute had been cultivated for some time, as we’ll see below. Both Zinglersen and Tele-Post sources quoted by AG confirmed the project will require the approval of the Greenlandic government before it starts. There might be a difference of opinion with the Chinese partners on whether the project has ‘started’, since Zinglersen hadn’t yet considered applying for the Greenlandic or Danish government’s permission, almost half a year after its ‘official’ launch. Both Greenland’s Foreign Affairs Office (Nunanut Allanut Pisortaqarfik/Udenrigsdirektoratet) and the foreign affairs and security committee at the Greenland parliament told AG they were unaware of Chinese plans to build a satellite station.

Thanks to AG‘s coverage and more recent information from Chinese sources, I’ve now been able to put together a fuller picture of what happened in Kangerlussuaq on May the 30th.
The event was indeed officially called a ‘launching ceremony’ in both Chinese and English. The hundred-odd travellers arrived from Copenhagen in the morning, attended the Kangerlussuaq ceremony, and left by helicopter in the evening to board a cruise ship (the Sea Spririt). The launching ceremony was described in promotional materials for the trip. It was clearly timed to allow the visitors to attend before embarking on the cruise. It was the only event they attended in Greenland besides the actual week-long boat expedition. Its combination with a cruise tour served a double purpose: it provided a Chinese public able to appreciate its significance and communicate it after returning to China, while its embedding in a tourist trip evaded the exposure a pure official arrangement could have attracted from the Greenlandic press. Souluniq isn’t your average tourist operator: it prides itself on organising regular trips to the Arctic (including Greenland) and Antarctica and events for members of the business élite, emphasising the strategic importance of China’s activities in the polar regions. Its chairman, He Zhijun 贺志军, is a well-connected businessman (e.g., he has worked with Tencent 腾讯, and a company led by He designed its famous penguin logo). He organised the first Chinese chartered-boat trip to Antarctica in 2010. He is conversant with China’s strategic goals in the polar regions, in whose pursuit and communication tour organisers and promoters like him do play a role. In a recent interview, he explained international interest in Antarctic exploration by stressing the continent’s abundant natural resources, notably fresh water, oil, coal and iron. Souluniq’s polar trips for the élite have featured prominent members of academia, officialdom, the diplomatic profession (including Sha Zukang 沙祖康) and the military. Rear Admiral (少将) Chen Yan 陈俨, former political commissar of the South China Sea fleet, well known for his Lady Gaga exercise routine and current Paracel spirit proselytising, has been to Antarctica with Souluniq. R Adm Chen was also part of this Greenland voyage, and, in all likelihood, attended the Kangerlussuaq station launching ceremony. Although he didn’t speak at the ceremony, his presence at the trip had an educational role in communicating the importance of the Arctic to China’s national interest.

Travellers on China’s first chartered boat trip to Antarctica, organised by He Zhijun’s Souluniq for over a hundred “élite entrepreneurs”. Great Wall Station (长城战), King George Island, 2010. Source: Souluniq.

The military component was also present at the Kangerlussuaq event. Speakers included, besides Cheng Xiao and a BNU colleague, a prominent figure in the Beidou 北斗 system, China’s alternative to GPS: Zhao Yaosheng 赵耀升, an engineer with a military background who is a Party member and former CEO of BDStar Navigation (北斗星通). BDStar was the first company allowed to use Beidou for civilian purposes. The company was originally a military enterprise established by the ministry overseeing defence procurement, and later became private, though still led by individuals (such as Zhao) with military backgrounds. (A 2008 article from Science and Technology Daily (科技日报) even credited Zhao with coming up with the name ‘Beidou’ for the system in 1994. Regardless of the truth of the claim, its occurrence in a state-media account illustrates Zhao’s involvement with the Beidou project already in the ’90s.) Although Cheng Xiao’s speech at the Kangerlussuaq event, as reported by Chinese media, highlighted the Nuuk station’s value for climate change research, the presence of such a Beidou veteran is a strong indication that China’s first ground station in North America is meant to a role in the satellite navigation system. Besides its civilian applications, Beidou is used by the PLA. Zinglersen and Enemark, the local representatives at the half-hour event, might have only been informed about the strictly scientific aspects of the project, and are likely unacquainted with the background of the Chinese participants. Its other goals, however, were clearly discussed during the Greenland tour, as confirmed by a businessperson on the trip who recalled the Nuuk ground station’s “strategic significance for gathering military data”.


Speakers at the Kangerlussuaq event, including BNU scientist Cheng Xiao 程晓, Beidou pioneer Zhao Yaosheng 赵耀升 and Souluniq CEO He Zhijun 贺志军.

Even during their cruise on board the Sea Spirit, our heroes didn’t limit themselves to leisure activities. On June 4, Cheng, together with Zhang Baogang 张宝钢, a BNU engineer who has been on two Antarctic expeditions, conducted what state media reported as China’s “first UAV flight in Greenland”. The fixed-wing remote-sensing drone Ji Ying 极鹰 (‘polar eagle’) 3 was flown for about an hour, seemingly around Nassuttooq.

The cruise-ceremony-expedition thus allowed the start of the ground-station project and other activities to be communicated to a selected Chinese audience and presented through Chinese media as an official bilateral event, while the Greenlandic public and their elected representatives remained unaware of the project existence. The senior figures in attendance, some of whom, like R Adm Chen, could have attracted undesirable media attention, simply came and left as tourists.

This rather peculiar behaviour, perhaps surprising to those familiar with (at most) only one side of China’s polar PR, is in fact consistent with Cheng Xiao’s own statements, as well as with the history of China’s activities in Greenland and the polar regions.



The man behind the satellite-station project is Cheng Xiao 程晓, director of the Global Change and Earth System Science Research Institute (全球变化与地球系统科学研究院) at BNU. Cheng, a geographer by training, is a well-known specialist in remote sensing and an important figure in the polar science community. His experience in the polar regions spans almost two decades. His work on mapping Antarctica reportedly attracted the attention of state councilor Liu Yandong 刘延东 (now vice premier). He has taken part in several Antarctic expeditions, including the 16th (1999-2000), the 22th (2005-2006), reaching Grove Mountains, and the 24th (2007-2008), where his surveying work at Dome Argus (‘Dome A’) was crucial for the subsequent establishment of Kunlun Station. His work on satellite data processing and analysis is credited with an important role in polar navigation, in particular for China’s polar vessel Xue Long 雪龙 in several polar voyages.

In perhaps the most eventful such voyage, the Xue Long took part in an Australian-led endeavour to rescue the Russian ship Akademik Shokalsky, trapped in Antarctic ice on Christmas Eve, 2013. The Xue Long, whose icebreaking capabilites are limited, got itself stuck while trying to reach the Russian vessel, but helped evacuate its crew by helicopter. An American icebreaker was dispatched on January 4 to rescue the Chinese and Russian ships, but a weather change allowed them to set free of their own accord before it could reach the area. Not a day after breaking free, the 30th Expedition crew sent a message from the Xue Long thanking Cheng Xiao and his BNU team for supplying satellite data during the operation, that established “China’s positive image as a responsible polar exploration power”. The Expedition thanked Cheng’s institute again in a second letter in March 2014.


The 30th Antarctic Expedition’s letter to Beijing Normal University thanking Cheng Xiao and his team for helping the Xue Long during the rescue operation. Sent from the ship the day after it broke free. Source: State Key Laboratory of Remote Sensing Science (遥感科学国家重点实验室). Full letter here.

Cheng has often referred to his work and scientific activity in the polar regions as serving China’s national interests. In a recent interview to Communist Youth-affiliated website, he echoed Xi Jinping’s call to “accelerate the construction of a maritime power”. “What I do myself is polar research, and building a polar power is an important component of building a maritime power.” “The General Secretary has formulated very high expectations and demands” towards scientists. Talking to state tabloid Global Times, he stressed that the Arctic is of “great strategic interest” to China, and called for “every government department” to look at Arctic issues bearing the national interest in mind. “Our country’s future development opportunities are in the Arctic, just like the major military threats come from the Arctic.” At the Kangerlussuaq ceremony, he explained that BNU’s global network of satellite ground stations is a “strategic plan” the university has established as part of the nation’s Belt and Road and Arctic strategies.

Cheng’s recommendations on China’s engagement with the Arctic merit are especially relevant. In the Global Times interview, he talked of a “geopolitical” need for China, “as a responsible power”, to participate in Arctic affairs. Since, unlike in Antarctica, sovereign nations control Arctic lands, China must use its advanced technologies “to benefit indigenous inhabitants”. “For example, as a result of global warming, Greenland’s population is extremely concerned about the drastic changes brought on their living environment by large-scale receding of the ice sheet, caused by climate change. But the Greenland government has only two staff conducting satellite remote sensing, and doesn’t have its own ability to develop satellites. Therefore, BNU produced a high-resolution satellite map for the Greenland government and gave it to them as a gift through our Ministry of Science and Technology.” The map was given last year by Cheng Xiao, and the gift idea came from Zinglersen, his main contact in Greenland, who, as he told AG, had spent “decades” waiting for such a map from the Danish authorities. The map was actually made with American, open-source satellite images. Cheng’s team simply put them together; this year’s crucial success is likely at least partly due to the goodwill earned with that gift. Cheng calls for an increased role of higher education and research institutions in China’s Arctic strategy, since as “unofficial” entities they are able to “effectively counter the ‘China Arctic threat theory’.” In this regard, the peculiar arrangement for the May event has been successful so far: voices in Greenland and Denmark that could have been expected to raise concerns about the project simply didn’t know about it.

And indeed such concerns have now been raised. This week’s AG quotes Nils Wang, head of Denmark’s Defence College (Forsvarsakademiet), a well-known expert on Arctic security and the second rear admiral to be featured in this story, after R Adm Chen. Wang says that the Danish Realm (the state comprising Denmark, Greenland and the Faroes) should have “full access” to the unprocessed data received at the Chinese station. “Such a ground station is not necessarily a problem in itself, says Wang, if the data it gathers are only used for scientific research and are shared openly between the partners in the agreement.” Even though he might not have been aware of the event’s military angle at the time he talked to AG, Wang warned that, absent a clear agreement on data access by the host country, such a station “can obviously also be used for intelligence gathering and military goals.”  Zinglersen, BNU’s main contact, appears to agree with that proposition in a new interview, although it’s clear data sharing is not part of any formal agreement (he had earlier hoped for access to the data for free or at a preferential price). Aaja Chemnitz Larsen, chair of the foreign affairs and security committee of Greenland’s parliament, who also learnt about May’s event through the press, thinks that the administration should be informed about such projects, and in turn inform parliament. She warns against getting “scared every time there is a Chinese project.” She finds it “a bit worrying” that the Greenlandic government hadn’t been informed about the deal, as it should have knowledge about all its conditions, including what kind of data will be transmitted and whether Greenland and Denmark will be given access.

Needless to say, these worries would have been promptly assuaged if the agreement had been discussed openly back in the summer.


An excursus into exoprop

This contrast between China’s messaging to domestic and foreign audiences, emphasising, respectively, national (including natural-resource and military) strategies, and scientific engagement and trade, has been illustrated on several occasions in Greenland. In the case of mining projects, state involvement tends to be downplayed for foreign audiences. The first Chinese exploration project in Greenland, near Carlsberg Fjord, involved state-owned major Jiangxi Copper, since it began in 2009; Chinese investment in the project had been a matter of high-level discussions in China, with the China Institute of Strategy and Management (中国战略与管理研究会), a government think tank, touting it to SOEs. However, Jiangxi Copper’s participation, deemed a “sensitive” matter, was only publicly described in a Western language in 2013, in my first blog post on Greenland. In another example, Shenghe Resources, the rare-earth giant that has invested in the Kvanefjeld/Kuannersuit project, tends to be described as a ‘private’ company, a description that obscures its state affiliation; Shenghe’s intent to eventually acquire a controlling stake in the project was also presented rather differently in China and Greenland.

This differentiated approach is not limited to Greenland. Anne-Marie Brady, the world’s leading expert on China’s polar policy, and also known for her earlier work on the propaganda apparatus, discusses it extensively in her latest book, China as a Polar Great Power. “The Chinese media tends to talk up China’s polar activities and achievements in Chinese-language materials, where as it downplays the same activities and achievements in materials aimed at foreigners.” In particular, China’s interest in the exploitation of Arctic and Antarctic resources, a key goal of its polar research activities, is made clear to Chinese audiences, but ‘downplayed or denied’ abroad.

This duplicitous approach needs to be understood as coming from an authoritarian Party-state that attaches great importance to information management, and has the capabilities to force its propaganda policies on media, business and academia to an extent Western spin doctors would never dream of. While this strategy often succeeds in convincing foreign interlocutors, such as scholars or officials without China expertise, it can also generate mistrust. The ‘other’ side of Chinese polar strategies does reach foreign observers sooner or later, installing the idea that China has something to hide. In fact, there’s nothing unspeakably sinister about such aspects of China’s polar interests as the exploration of natural resources (including the eventual opening of Antarctica to mineral exploitation) or its dual-use satellite navigation system. It is rather worrying, however, that Greenland’s government might feel inclined to humour China’s Party-state and follow its nontransparent practices, with potential long-term consequences for Greenland’s open society.