PRC Landsat Serves Agriculture And Land Use Planners

A November 1997 Report from U.S. Embassy Beijing

Summary: The China Remote Sensing Satellite Ground Station uses LANDSAT-5, European and Japanese satellites imagery to support agricultural, city planning, and environmental research, but only LANDSAT-5 data is now sold. State Science and Technology Commission Remote Sensing D-G Zheng said LANDSAT’s first major success in China was helping demonstrate that Tibet has enough arable land to feed it itself and that boosting land productivity, not increasing land area is the answer. Notes on a 1996 PRC demographer report on Tibet food imports are appended to this report. Zheng told ESTOFFs that although official statistics understate PRC arable land, PRC experts do not agree with foreign experts who say that one-third of arable land is missed. LANDSAT photos help the central government monitor local government compliance with strict 1997 State Council controls on agricultural land conversion. Zheng told ESTOFFs that efforts to merge satellite data with other information to create geographic information systems (GIS) have been frustrated by the unwillingness of ministries and local government to share information. Recent Fifteenth Party Congress reforms might enable private GIS companies to make sharing information profitable. A book of LANDSAT images presented to Embassy EST officers contained fine images of rural China and Beijing as well as Siberian port cities, Seoul and Kadena Air Force Base on Okinawa.

Sino-American Earth Resources Cooperation: Since 1979

Embassy Beijing Science Counselor and Science Officer on October 31 visited the Chinese Academy of Sciences China Remote Sensing Satellite Ground Station, the only earth resources satellite ground station in China. Pan Xizhe, Station director and his staff gave ESTOFFs a tour of the image processing, calibration against maps, and storage facilities of the Station. Zheng Lizhong, Deputy Director-General, State Science and Technology Commission Dept. of Fundamental Research and High Tech along with Pan and the Station staff explained how China uses remote sensing to monitor flooding, to help assess Tibet’s ability to feed itself, to measure the amount of arable land, and to check local compliance with central government land use regulations. The Station which has a staff of 200 (including 40 professors and associate professors and 20 postgraduate students), including a receiving station at the Miyun Reservoir in suburban Beijing, has operated for ten years. The station receives, processes, distributes and archives satellite data. The Sino-U.S. Chinese cooperation on remote sensing began with an agreement that Deng Xiaoping and President Carter signed in 1979.

U.S., French, European Union, and Japanese Earth Resources Satellites

The Station receives LANDSAT-5, Japanese JRS-1, French SPOT, European Union ERS 1 and 2, and Canadian satellite data. For now, the Station sells only U.S. LANDSAT data under an agreement with EOS, the LANDSAT data marketing company. The Station will add a second and third dish receiving antenna next year. The Station sells 185 sq. km 30-meter resolution LANDSAT-5 imagery to foreigners at the international standard price of USD 4300 and to Chinese customers at the subsidized price of RMB 8300 (USD 1000). LANDSAT-5, in a sun-synchronous orbit, covers the entire Earth in 150 km.-wide strips every 16 days so environmental researchers and planners can follow changes over time. The Station is upgrading its equipment to prepare for the launching of LANDSAT-7. The station in August 1997 finished systems integration for receiving Canadian synthetic aperture radar (SAR) imagery. A Canadian dollars 500,000 grant made possible an upgrade to receive Canadian synthetic aperture radar high resolution satellite imagery data which will soon be sold by customers who will browse gross images on the center web site now under construction ( to select a suitable scene. Station director Pan Xizhe told ESTOFF that China and Brazil are jointly developing the CBERS 20-meter resolution Earth resources survey satellite. Pan said that since low-Earth orbit Earth resources satellites would provide much better resolution, he hopes that such satellites will be launched eventually.

Who Buys LANDSAT-5 Photos from the Station?

Many Chinese central government ministries, provincial and county governments use remote sensing data, as ESTOFF learned by looking at the Station order book and seeing receipts for many local governments and central government ministries. The station now has over 600 customers, including some South Korean and Japanese companies. Station officials showed ESTOFF a current breakdown of the most popular uses for satellite imagery from among the 43,600 sales the Station had made to date. Hydroelectric plant site research for 18.4 percent of the orders, followed by agriculture accounted at 17 percent, desertification studies at 16.4 percent, forestry at 15.3 percent, and oil prospecting/geology at 10.3 percent. The Station also sells to foreign customers. ESTOFFs were told that two North Koreans visited the station some time ago but did not buy any LANDSAT imagery. The North Koreans do not have any significant earth resources satellite utilization capability, said the Station staff member.

Organization of Remote Sensing Work in China

Zheng Lizhong, Deputy Director-General, State Science and Technology Commission Dept. of Fundamental Research and High Tech told ESTOFFs that many organizations are involved in PRC space technology. For example, Satellite planning is the responsibility of the Commission on Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense (COSTIND) while actual satellite manufacturing is done by the China Space Administration. The State Planning Commission is the planning and supporting agency for space technology applications under the direction of Vice Chairmen Madame Zhu Lilian and Prof. Xu Guanhua. The SSTC set up China National Remote Sensing Center (CNRSC) to coordinate users in different ministries, research institutes and local governments. For example, the CAS Remote Sensing Station is called the Ground Department and the Wuhan Science and Technology University is called the Training Department of the CNSC. The CNRSC has 12 departments which are jointly under the authority of various ministries and the SSTC. Policymaking, planning and key project support are concentrated at the center so that resources will be available for key projects. The CNRSC participates in UN meetings and signs memoranda of understanding with foreign governments for the PRC. National remote sensing application projects receive funding from both the State Science and Technology Commission and the State Planning Commission as well as from the particular ministry involved.

The Three Fold Way: Center, Ministries, Provinces

The central governments China National Remote Sensing Center, individual provinces and individual ministries set up their own separate remote sensing applications institutes and centers to address their own parochial concerns. The remote sensing applications centers in Fujian and Jiangsu Provinces are examples.

GIS Obstacle: Poor Information Sharing, Not Technology

The integration of earth resources data, global positioning system (GPS) and an array of other data sets into a geographic information system (GIS) is an important PRC goal, said Zheng. Much more difficult than the technical challenges of collecting and integrating data from different sources is getting different Chinese government ministries and local governments to cooperate. The greatest obstacle to GIS is not technical but the unwillingness of ministries and local governments to share information, said Zheng. This statement was emphatically seconded by the other Chinese officials present.

Lowering the GIS Barriers: Party Congress Breakthrough?

China needs a new policy to enable private companies to market geographic information systems (GIS), said Zheng. There are over 3000 Chinese cities that need GIS to manage gas, water and other urban systems so the potential market is very large. The report of the 15th Party Congress Central Committee made a very important change in allowing multiple economic forms to coexist, said Zheng. This change will make it easier to make policy changes that will permit the emergence of private GIS companies. [Comment: Private GIS companies could lower barriers between local government and ministerial GIS information collections by making it profitable for all concerned to merge their data into a whole that is more valuable than the sum of its parts. Financial incentives for sharing GIS data might well break down the poor information sharing that Zheng sees as the main barrier to the construction of large GIS systems. These system would become valuable tools for PRC urban and rural planners and policymakers. End comment]

LANDSAT Applications: Floods, Land Use Surveys, GIS

Zheng told ESTOFFs that while the United States is the leader in high technology, China is a leader in finding applications for LANDSAT. Zheng said China has floods almost every year. Remote sensing imagery helps identify the inundated areas reaches Beijing by satellite within one or two days. Remote sensing technology provides Chinese leaders with information derived from monitoring the Three Gorges Dam area, the development of high-tech zones, and urban land use patterns. Zheng said that the U.S. has advanced remote sensing technology while China has extensive experience with remote sensing because of its vast territory and frequent natural disasters.

Zheng told ESTOFFs that China uses earth resources satellite data to study land use, for crop and flood monitoring, to fight forest fires and to construct geographic information systems for informed planning. Zheng said that the PRC earth resources satellite community was very busy during the summer 1996 floods. Imagery from reconnaissance aircraft flying over flooded area was uplinked to satellites and then downlinked to the ground station for analysis and distribution to government officials. During the Ninth Five Year Plan which began last year, remote sensing application priorities will include land management, crop yield evaluation, disaster assessment and geographic information systems.

Tibet Arable Land: Measured by LANDSAT

Zheng told ESTOFFs that the first major accomplishment of the Chinese earth resources satellite program was a study of the agricultural potential of Tibet. Tibet is so large, Zheng said, that only with the help of an Earth resources satellite could such a big project be successfully completed. As a result of the study, said Zheng, the central government determined that there was enough arable land in Tibet to eventually support its population. Therefore, new land need not be opened up since productivity gains on land now in production will suffice to feed the population. After ESTOFF asked that since Tibet now depends upon large food imports, how can it expect to feed itself? Zheng said that the survey showed that not now, but after large productivity gains have been achieved, Tibet will be able to feed its own population.

[Note: An excerpt from a 1996 article by Chinese demographer of Tibet Ma Rong on Tibetan food production and central government food shipments to Tibet is appended to this report. Zheng referred to an eight-year survey of Tibetan resources using LANDSAT and extensive ground surveys by over 200 Chinese scientists completed in 1991. The survey concluded that the Tibetan grasslands are at or slightly below their livestock carrying capacity overall but that carrying capacity has been exceeded in several parts of Tibet. The 14 volumes (8 volumes on Tibetan land resources) were edited by the Tibetan Autonomous Region Land Management Bureau and published by the Kexue Chubanshe in 1992 - 1994. End note]

Keeping Local Government in Line: An Eye in the Sky

ESTOFF asked Zheng about how LANDSAT data helps the Chinese government understand how much agricultural land is being converted to non-agricultural uses. Zheng said that LANDSAT photos taken as part of a 17 city 1996 land use survey showed the leadership that the problem of unauthorized land conversion is very serious. (ref A). The central government now uses LANDSAT photos to monitor compliance with the April 1997 State Council order freezing nearly all conversions of agricultural land to non-agricultural uses. LANDSAT photos are very useful in studying changes in land use, desertification, environmental issues and forestry.

How Much Arable Land Does China Have, PRC Experts Ask

Zheng, who visited the U.S. Department of Agriculture during Summer 1997, told ESTOFF that she was very impressed the excellent crop estimates produced by a staff of just seven people. Zheng hopes increased Sino-American cooperation will help improve the skills of Chinese interpreters of LANDSAT photos. ESTOFF told Zheng that many experts believe that China has one-third more agricultural land than are recorded in PRC government statistics. Zheng replied that although Chinese experts agree that there is more land than in the PRC statistics, they believe that the unrecorded arable land comes to far less than an additional one-third. [Note: According to the 1997 World Bank Report "At China's Table: Food Security Options" China has 40 percent more arable land than recorded in official statistics. End note]

PRC January ‘98 Conference on Remote Sensing, GPS, GIS

Many Chinese organizations uses remote sensing, GPS and geographic information systems. The State Science and Technology Commission, as overall coordinator, in January 1998 will convene a national conference on GIS and GPS technology in Beijing. The SSTC and the State Planning Commission (SPC) are both involved in these issues. The SSTC looks at telecommunications technology issues while the SPC is concerned with infrastructure issues.

Look Up and Smile, Okinawa

The Beijing Station sells LANDSAT-5 30-meter resolution 185 square kilometer image frames for anywhere within 2500 kilometers of Beijing including all of Japan, North and South Korea, Mongolia and much of southern Siberia. Xinjiang and extreme western China fall outside the coverage zone. Full color 1995 satellite photographs of the Siberian port cities of Vladivostok and Sovetskaja Gavan’, Seoul, and southern Okinawa (including good views of Kadena AFB, Futenma Marine Air Station, and the U.S. naval facility on the Katsuren peninsula) as well as Chinese mountains and deserts were included in the book of LANDSAT photographs presented to EST officers.

Can Infrared Remote Sensing Predict Earthquakes?

Prof. Hu Ruzhong, Secretary-General of the China Association for Remote Sensing Applications, recently presented Embassy EST section with a 540-page collection of articles on remote sensing applications. The volume was distributed at the annual meeting of the National Conference of Remote Sensing Applications help in Urumqi, Xinjiang in September. See the bibliographic note below for an outline of the contents of the volume. One of the articles, “Satellite Thermal Infrared Anomaly and Earthquake Prediction” by Liu Lingzhi and colleagues at the Satellite Prediction Research Center for Natural Disaster, China National Space Administration reviews recent PRC tests of regional temperature increases detected as infrared emissions by satellite as a short-term predictor of earthquakes. Chinese scientists Fu Chengyi in 1971 theorized that geological activity prior to an earthquake would produce atmospheric warming in the area where the quake would occur. Liu reported that five years of tests of this technology during 1990 - 95 fifty earthquakes predications were made. Twelve accurate, 24 fairly accurate, nine poor predictions and five false reports were made. The technique works better for predicting strong than for weak earthquakes, writes Liu. Cloud cover limits the usefulness of this method. These results were presented at a March 1997 seismology conference held in Tokyo.

U.S. Embassy Beijing Web Page Reports

All three reftels, “China’s Farmland Loss Rings Alarm -- Satellite Photos Reveal a Serious Problem” and “Can China Feed Itself in the 21st Century: Land Use Patterns May Provide Some Answers”, and “China Quake Activity Twice Normal, Increased Big Quake Risk Warns State Seismological Bureau” are on the U.S. Embassy Beijing web page at

Chinese Participants:

Zheng Lizhong, Deputy Director-General, State Science and Technology CommissionDepartment. of Fundamental Research and High Tech [EMAIL: ZHENGLZ@SUN.IHEP.AC.CN]

Peng Yiqi, SSTC Division of Space and Remote Sensing

Pan Xizhe, D-G CAS China Remote Sensing Ground Station []

Wang Jiesheng, Deputy Director, CAS China Remote Sensing Ground Station []

Zhang Jianguo, Assistant Director, CAS China Remote Sensing Ground Station, []

Li Yinxi, Director of Image Processing, CAS Remote Sensing Ground Station [

Li Chuanrong, Director of Synthetic Aperture Radar Image Processing, CAS China Remote Sensing Satellite Ground Station []

Email address of the CAS Remote Sensing Satellite Ground Station: Their web page is at


Land Use in the Tibetan Autonomous Region [Xizang Zizhiqu Tudi Liyong], edited by Tibetan Autonomous Region Land Management Bureau, Beijing, 1992, Kexue Chubanshe.

Grassland Resources of the Tibetan Autonomous Region [Xizang Zizhiqu Caodi Ziyuan], edited by Tibetan Autonomous Region Land Management Bureau, Beijing, 1994, Kexue Chubanshe.

Evaluation of Land Resources in the Tibetan Autonomous Region [Xizang Zizhiqu Tudi Ziyuan Pingjia], edited by Tibetan Autonomous Region Land Management Bureau, Beijing, 1994, Kexue Chubanshe.

China's Minority Populations: Surveys and Research [Zhongguo Shaoshu Minzu Renkou Diaocha Yanjiu] Chief editors: Zhang Tianlu, Huang Rongqing. Beijing, March 1996, Gaodeng Jiaoyu Chubanshe. The thirty page article on Tibet by Chinese demographer Ma Rong discusses the very large central government subsidies to Tibet.

The Majestic Earth: A Selection of Earth Resources [Banlan Dadi: Yaogan Weixing Tuxiang Jingxuan], Satellite Images by the CAS China Remote Sensing Satellite Ground Station. Beijing, December 1996, Science Press.

Progress in Chinese Regional Remote Sensing Applications [Zhongguo Difang Yaogan Yingyong Jinzhan], edited by Zhuang Fenggan, Beijing, Astronautical Publishing [Yuhang Chubanshe], September 1997 [600 copies]. The one hundred articles in this 550 page book cover topics such as applications of remote sensing to the construction of geographic information systems in Tibet, Shanxi Province and the Yangtze River; disaster prevention, and flooding in Jiangsu Province. Other topics include satellite infrared thermal anomaly and earthquake prediction, modeling rice field estimation using remote sensing, macroanalysis of landuse in the Danjiangkou reservoir area of Hubei Province, remote sensing geology for petroleum over the North Tarim Basin and Baise Basin, remote sensing and looking for water in Inner Mongolia, using thematic mapper images to monitor water loss and soil erosion, urban landuse changes in Nanjing, and light aircraft scanning digital image system and applications.


Chinese Demographer Ma Rong on Tibet: Tibetan Population Doubled So Massive Subsidies, Food Imports Required

Follows Embassy Beijing summary of 1996 article on Tibet by Chinese demographer Ma Rong from Surveys and Research on China’s Minority Populations [Zhongguo Shaoshu Minzu Renkou Diaocha Yanjiu], edited by Zhang Tianlu and published by Gaodeng Jiaoyu Chubanshe, Shatan Houjie #55, Beijing, China. FAX: 86-10-6401-4048.

“Tibet is high, mountainous and cold; relatively little land is suitable for farming. In 1992, the Tibetan autonomous region had 3.36 million mu (225,000 hectares) of arable land or about 1.5 mu per person. One-third of this land is irrigated and food production per mu is only 455 jin (230 kg). According to a Chinese Academy of Sciences study, there is little unused land suitable for agriculture in Tibet, so increases in production depend upon improved agricultural techniques, not more land inputs. This in turn will require considerable new investment in the land and in the people to train them how to use better techniques.”

Fifty Kilograms Food Per Capita Sent to Tibet Each Year

Summary of Ma Rong article continues: “The population of the Tibetan autonomous region grew from 1.27 million in 1953 to 2.25 million in 1992. The Chinese central government in order to meet the needs of this larger population sends in large quantities of food each year. Between 1985 and 1992, the central government send an average of 106,000 tons per year of foodstuffs to Tibet. On a per capita basis, this comes to 50 kg. for each of the 2 million inhabitants of the Tibetan autonomous region. In 1992, about 78 percent of the population was engaged in herding or agriculture etc. This means that although three-quarters of the population is engaged in agriculture and herding, they still must depend upon the central government to supply three months worth of food for them every year. If the Tibetan population continues to increase, the problem of the food supply will become even more acute.”