China has cancelled plans to televise the launch of its first manned space mission. The launch time is secret, but it is expected by the end of the week.

With the launch possibly due any time now, China's state-run media says plans have been called off to broadcast the mission live.

The ruling Communist Party's newspaper said officials at China Central Television had decided against live coverage at the last minute. CCTV officials had no comment.

Observers say China hopes to gain international prestige from a successful launch. If all goes as planned, China will be only the third nation after the United States and the former Soviet Union to put a human in orbit.

But the stakes are especially high at home, where the government hopes to enhance its image amid rising unemployment, poverty, and other social problems.

A Hong Kong newspaper quoted media sources as saying the decision to scrap live coverage of the launch stemmed from leaders' fear that a failure of the mission could be damaging to the government's image.

Professor Joan Johnson-Freese of the Naval War College in the U.S. state of Rhode Island has written extensively about the Chinese space program. She said the government has a pattern of releasing as little information as possible before an important launch.

"The Chinese are acutely aware that as soon as they launch, the spacecraft will be tracked by other countries, so there is no sense in trying to hide the launch," she said. "I think what they are trying to do now is get out in front of the publicity, while still maintaining as much domestic spin control as possible. If something goes wrong, they want the opportunity to relay that message to the Chinese public in a way as favorable as possible or in their own terms."

China's space program, which is supported and run by the army, used to air rocket launches live. That changed after a series of blunders in the 1990s, the worst of which was the 1995 explosion of a rocket that killed six members of a family on the ground shortly after liftoff.

Since then, people in China have usually gotten word of launches only after the missions have ended successfully.

It was only Monday that the state-run media began giving the public a glimpse of the launch preparations.

A Chinese state television documentary described the upcoming launch as a sign that China, the ancient inventor of gunpowder and fireworks, is recovering its place as a leader in technology.