Tue, Oct 14, 2003 - Page 9 News List

China's space program puts prestige before real development

The aim to put an astronaut in space has more to do with gratifying leaders' and the nation's vanity than tackling China's technological backwardness

By Jim Yardley  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , BEIJING

Amid all the clutter that has been rocketed into space is a clunky satellite expected to circle the Earth until 2070. The satellite, the Dong Fang Hong (東方紅), was the first ever launched by China, in 1970, and is also an extraterrestrial boombox: It broadcasts into the cosmos the strains of the Maoist anthem, The East is Red.

It seems likely that the song, like Maoist communism, is no longer playing.

When China plans to become the third nation to launch an astronaut into space, as soon as tomorrow, the government's top leaders will be sending a new message, to two audiences.

To the rest of the world, China is displaying its growing technological prowess, staking its claim to a future role in space and reasserting its case for being considered a power equal to the US.

To its own people, the Chinese leadership hopes to stir pride and nationalism and to prove that the Communist Party, rather than being a dinosaur, is capable of the most technical of achievements. A full-throttle propaganda campaign is under way, with huge coverage in state-run newspapers and a 20-part series about the space program about to run on state-run television.

"It's primarily about showing the world; it's about prestige," said Brian Harvey, author of a 1998 book about the Chinese space program. "It's a vindication of their political system."

The mission is only meant to orbit the earth 14 times in 21 hours, but it opens the way toward China's much bigger ambitions in space. The government plans to launch a Hubble-like space telescope and to begin exploring the moon within three years. Analysts say China is working to launch a space station, possibly to coincide with the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.

For now, though, the Shenzhou V is the center of attention. The spacecraft is scheduled to blast off as early as tomorrow or as late as Friday from the Jiuquan launching site in the Gobi Desert. The government has still not identified the astronauts. Nor has it said how many astronauts will be on board, through there reportedly could be as many as three.

It might seem anticlimactic to join a space club where the original members, the former Soviet Union and the United States, each sent astronauts into space more than 40 years ago. But if China's late entry speaks to its arrested development, it also underscores the country's determination to be in space and to pursue scientific excellence.

Centuries ago, China invented the rocket as well as gunpowder. But Chinese political analysts and historians note that the country's leaders, many of them engineers or technicians, are strongly influenced by Chinese history from the 19th and early 20th centuries, when the country faced foreign invaders with superior weapons and technology.

"From that time on, China has always been preoccupied with copying and catching up with foreign science and technology," said Lei Yi, an historian of modern China at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. "The launching of the Shenzhou V is really a logical extension of this line of thought that goes back a century -- saving the nation through science and technology."

The former Chinese president and party chief, Jiang Zemin (江澤民), who remains the head of the military, which ultimately controls the space program, restarted the astronaut flight program in 1992. (In the 1970s, China discontinued a similar, secret program.) An editor at a major state newspaper, who spoke on condition of anonymity, attributed Jiang's interest, in part, to his fear of falling too far behind the West.

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