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Last Updated: Wednesday, 15 October, 2003, 12:33 GMT 13:33 UK
Going into space to gain face
tim luard
By Tim Luard
BBC News Online

With so many problems to sort out on Earth, why is a country like China sending people into space?

Ranked 96th in last year's UN Human Development Index, China still counts itself among the mass of poor, developing nations.

Yet it is has succeeded in putting a man in orbit, becoming only the third nation in history to do so.

It is true that recent years have seen a dynamic growth in China's economic and technological strength, which it hopes will be further bolstered as a result of its space programme.

All about national prestige - and filling the public with pride
But putting a man in space is more to do with national pride and international prestige than with specific material benefits - particularly for a government as concerned with "face" as the Chinese.

The Shenzhou V mission is a "showcase for China's coming of age as a major player in international affairs," according to Li Cheng, professor of government at Hamilton College in the US State of New York.

"It has joined a club that until now has had only two members," he told BBC News Online.

It is significant that this club excludes such other leading satellite launchers as the European Union, Japan and India, says Jean-Pierre Cabestan, China specialist at the French National Centre for Scientific Research.

"This goal is therefore highly political, and is aimed at projecting China above other regional powers, to an orbit where only the largest continental nations rotate. In other words, a manned space programme is the passport for entering the superpower club," he said.

1972: joins UN Security council as one of "Big 5" permanent members
2001: joins World Trade Organisation as "special" developing nation
2003: joins "Man in Space" club
China's ambitions in space are driven as much if not more by politics - including domestic politics - as they are by any scientific quest, says James Miles, who was the BBC's China Correspondent for many years and is now based in Beijing for the Economist.

"Just as the launch of men into space by the Soviet Union and the United States generated huge upsurges of national pride in both those countries, China is hoping that its first spaceman will help focus the attention of citizens on China's greatness rather than on the downsides of the country's wrenching economic transformation," he said.

Long-term dream

Unofficial Chinese websites have been carrying debates on whether the money being poured into the space programme might not be better spent on helping China's poorer regions.

Sammy Cheng, who works for a Beijing radio station, says ordinary Chinese are on the whole pleased and proud their country has succeeded in sending a man into space.

All nine members of the politburo standing committee are engineers
Li Cheng, professor of government, Hamilton college
"But many people know little about it. It is not really something close to their hearts. Unless they are especially interested in aeronautics, they are unlikely to be feeling very excited by this news," he said.

The official Communist Party line is that the space flight will materially benefit not just China but the whole world.

"For the future of mankind and our country's politics, military, economy, science and technology it will be hugely influential," said the communist party's People's Daily.

China's technology was once the envy of the world. But a decline set in 4-500 years ago, as the empire became more inward looking, and it is only in the past 25 years that things have looked up again, says Li Cheng.

Outposts on the Moon

"Starting with Deng Xiaoping, the recent leadership has been driven by technocratic competitiveness - by the belief that national power stems from economic strength, which in turn comes from technocratic strength," he said.

All nine members of the group of men who rule China today - the standing committee of the Communist Party politburo - are engineers by training, Professor Li points out.

China's 10-year space objectives include setting up a satellite broadcasting and telecommunications system and building "an integrated military and civilian Earth observation system".

The space programme as a whole does have obvious military implications
Gary Milhollin, US defence specialist
Among longer term goals are the industrialisation and marketing of space technology and becoming a "world leader in space science and the exploration of outer space," he said.

Ouyang Ziyuan, chief scientist of China's Moon exploration programme, told BBC News Online last year that the aim was a space station not later than 2005, and that there could be manned Chinese outposts on the Moon by 2020 or 2030.

"The Moon could serve as a new and tremendous supplier of energy and resources for human beings," he said. "This is crucial to sustainable development of human beings on Earth."

But does China's space programme have other, more selfish objectives?

Defeating missile defence

There are specific military purposes, in the view of Li Cheng.

"No one would be so na´ve as to think this only has civilian implications. China is very concerned about the US missile defence system. [China's] space programme is commissioned and mainly controlled by the military," he said.

Such charges are dismissed by officials and academics in China.

"There may be some soldiers assigned to protect facilities, but my feeling is that the Chinese space project has nothing to do with the military," said Professor Li Bin, a specialist on international security at Beijing's Tsinghua University.

China's space programme as a whole does have obvious military implications, says Gary Milhollin, an American defence expert.

"If you make progress in space, if you use that progress for reconnaissance of military satellites, you can make progress in launching more effective missile attacks."

Country profile: China
24 May 03  |  Country profiles


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