Fri, Oct 17, 2003 - Page 8 News List

Editorial: Another `Great Leap,' continued poverty

On Wednesday, China sent a manned spacecraft into orbit for the first time. The move by itself is of course no major scientific breakthrough. Nevertheless it holds economic, political and military implications for both China and the world.

Forty years after the Soviet Union sent the first man into space, space technology no longer holds the same kind of mythical allure. Scientifically there is not much China could do with a man in space that could not have been done with an unmanned space program. The question for many countries has long been not whether they have the technology to do it, but whether it is worth the astronomical costs it entails. This is one reason for the US government's seemingly reduced enthusiasm for NASA spending over the past few years. For a country such as China that continues to wrestle with serious wealth gaps, massive unemployment and corruption, what makes the 19 billion yuan spent on the project a worthy price?

Just like winning the 2008 Olympic Games, the space program incites heightens nationalism and pride among the Chinese people that makes them forget about the more pressing problems in their lives and demands for reform that could seriously shake the Chinese government. Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) was quick to praise the mission as "the glory of our great motherland" and "a historic step for the Chinese people." There will likely be nationwide fascination about space technology over the next few years, similar to the public frenzy over table tennis and soccer when China first began to turn in exceptional performances in these sports in international competitions.

Lost in the hoopla is the miserable hand-to-mouth struggle that is still the lot of the majority of Chinese, especially farmers and others in rural areas. And while Chinese are now free to dream of space, their intellectual parameters will still be strictly controlled and limited by the Chinese Communist Party.

For Beijing's rulers, however, China becoming only the third country to send a manned craft into space makes every yuan spent on the project more than worthwhile. It sends the message that China is now one of the elite. The US must be somewhat alarmed about this development in view of Beijing's ambition to compete and challenge Washington's dominance among world powers.

US anxiety is surely driven by the belief that military use will be high on the priority list of China's space program, which is run by the People's Liberation Army. In fact, the development of space technology has long been a core component of the Chinese military's modernization efforts. The foreseeable resulting military threats are even greater to regional powers such as Japan and South Korea.

As for the people of Taiwan, the immediate concern is whether peace and security in the Taiwan Strait will be further threatened by this break-through. The truth of the matter is that China's military is already fully capable of striking Taiwan. So, additional threats are only icing on the cake for Beijing. In the long run, Chinese advancement in space technology may allow it to improve the precision of its missile strikes and information gathering about this country.

Of greater concern should be what propaganda value the space mission will provide for those believers of the "Great China" ideology. Unfortunately it might deepen their conviction that Taiwan should be overwhelmed by the desire of the "great motherland" to want to rule us.

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