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China’s Manned Space Flight Heralds Technological Rite of Passage - 2003-10-20

China’s feat was achieved 42 years after the former Soviet Union and the United States. Yet it has earned the coveted title of third nation to send a man into space, with equal pride and ambition as the U.S. Apollo missions of the 1960’s. Military and political experts predict that Beijing will try to build a rival space station, go to the moon and send a probe to Mars.

The latest milestone comes at a time when China is stepping out onto the world stage. It recently won the 2008 Olympic bid, became a member of the World Trade Organization, and has taken a leadership role in negotiating with North Korea about its nuclear weapons program.

Robert Radtke tracks China’s policy changes for the Asia Society, a private research group in New York City. He says the successful launch was a calculated public-relations bounty for China.

“There are two audiences for this event,” he says. “One is a domestic audience within China, and the other is the international audience. The leadership is focused on showing to the domestic audience that it is moving China in a modern, powerful, world-class direction, that China has joined the club of the United States and Russia in terms of putting a man into space. That the success in doing that adds positively to the reputation of the Chinese Communist party. It is a patriotic event that enhances the status of the new leadership. Internationally, it throws a marker down to the rest of the world that China is arriving as a major global, technology giant.”

China is also looking toward potential military applications, such as satellite and computer tracking to coordinate air, sea and land-based military systems, says Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College in Rhode Island.

“China understands that it has no hope of reaching parity with the United States in terms of space capabilities,” she says. “The United States does not just hold space superiority, we are space-dominant, and we are going to remain that way. Having said that, the Chinese also understand that a manned space program, in order to successfully accomplish a manned space program, they have to become mature in certain technologies that then spill over into the military.”

Professor Johnson-Freese says the launch not only demonstrates China’s rocket-engineering capabilities, it suggests that if Chinese technology can maneuver a rocket, it can maneuver a missile.

“China sees this as their regaining their historical legacy of leadership in technology,” she says. “They talk with great pride about the inventors of gunpowder, fireworks, and it was a field they’ve then been shut out of. So it’s regaining a historical legacy, a great deal of pride. We’re going to see lots of people in Tiananmen Square celebrating. I don’t think that’s nefarious, I think that says more about how the Chinese feel about themselves than about others. It’s saying national pride, it’s akin to winning an Olympic gold medal.”

Observers believe putting a man into orbit quenches the longstanding thirst of the country’s most famous leaders, Sun Yat-sen, Chiang Kai-shek, Mao Zedong as well as the current Chinese president Hu Jintao and military chief, Jiang Zemin, for technological superiority.

Dean Cheng is a research analyst for the not-for-profit CNA Corporation in Virginia. He says this week’s space flight shows China’s technology might to its Asian neighbors.

“It says we have arrived,” he says. “We have achieved a level of capability. And the space program encapsulates this because it’s a combination of both science and technology. We have achieved a level of technology that puts us comparable to the U.S. and former Soviet Union. It says that we have the resources, in terms of scientific personnel and trained engineers, to devote to this. And money, we have the spare resources. Because, at the end of the day, a space program is in some ways a luxury. So China is putting down a marker, essentially to the rest of Asia certainly, saying we have achieved this level compared to the rest of you.”

Mr. Cheng says Japan’s $2.5 billion space program budget is the largest in the region, but it is not as technologically advanced as China. He says India is even further behind, and at least five years away from manned space flights.

He says that unlike the U.S. and former Soviet Union’s space programs, which began with a need to know what’s out there in space, China hopes to derive some economic benefit.

“It may serve as advertising,” he says, “in the sense that a successful manned launch, or a series of successful launches, says to the world, our launchers, our boosters are safe enough for us to put people on, they’re certainly safe enough for you to put your billion-dollar satellites on. Given that china’s order book for satellite launch services has been quite weak lately, the last one they launched was the Iridium series back in 1998, you’re talking about a whole lot of spare capacity that hasn’t been used, I think that some of that is to drum up additional demand for launch services.”

Robert Radtke says it’s important for people to remember that China’s space program is only part of an overall strategy to propel the most populous nation in the world forward.

“China is a country with a strategic plan,” he says. “They’re going to build that Three Gorges Dam, they’re going to make Shanghai a financial services center. They can focus a lot of energy on some very specific goals. I think the space program is part of that, and it has economic benefits, but more importantly, it has prestige benefits.”

The Naval War College’s Johnson-Freese agrees. “If their goal were strictly to develop military space technology, doing it through a manned route is the most expensive, least efficient way to do it,” she says. “I don’t think their manned program is by any means a Trojan horse that they’re doing it primarily for the military benefits. They’re doing it for multiple benefits of which the military spillover is one part. Does it make Washington sit up and be alarmed? No, I would stop and say it makes them sit up and take notice.”

China’s orbiter, known as the Divine Vessel, circled the Earth 14 times before it appeared 60 degrees above the horizon at 5:57 a.m. Eastern Standard Time.