It appears that the improper Chinese expression and English translation error that exists in China’s 2006 White Paper and some official statement and addresses made by some Chinese officials has been repeated in China’s new 2011 White Paper.
The 2011 White Paper, like the older documents states that “outer space is the common wealth of mankind”. The author recommends the term of art, “the exploration and use of outer space shall be the province of all mankind” be used instead of the expression, “outer space is the common wealth of mankind”.
The meaning of “common wealth” causes some confusion. Does it mean that China asserts that “outer space” is the “joint possession” of mankind? Does it mean that China maintains that the right to explore and use outer space should be based on the consent of all mankind? Both possibilities are incorrect.
There are two Chinese words used in China’s official documents for the translation of “common wealth”. One is “共同财产”. In English it means “joint possession”. The other one, which is used in both White Papers, is “共同财富”. In Chinese it means having the right to share things and having an obligation to protect them. This word should be translated into “common heritage” but not “common wealth”. Therefore, “common wealth of mankind” in China’s White Papers should not be taken as “joint possession of mankind”, but as “common heritage of mankind” as in the Moon Treaty. It is a translation error.
However, China is not a party to the Moon Treaty. So it is improper for China to hold the same position that is contained in the Moon Treaty in its national space document. Therefore, it is an improper expression.
Considering China is a Party to the Outer Space Treaty, the author suggests changing “outer space is the common wealth of mankind” to “the exploration and use of outer space shall be the province of all mankind”. This change is in keeping with the current status of international space law and the due international obligations of China.
The subject of this post is the result of research conducted by the author and Professor Joanne Gabrynowicz during the author’s stay as a visiting scholar at the National Center for Remote Sensing, Air, and Space Law. During the last few years, Professor Gabrynowicz had read a number of Chinese English language publications in which the term “common wealth” was used to describe the legal status of outer space. Since the term “common wealth” is not a treaty term, she and Prof. Wang decided to research and trace the English and Chinese translations.