China Aims to Display Prowess With Spacewalk (Updated)

As China approaches its third mission into space, and the country’s first spacewalk, it not only is making history, but the timeliness of the walk after the Olympics has the additional component of helping build China’s image. From the The Wall Street Journal by Gordon Fairclough:

China plans to send astronauts into orbit Thursday to conduct the nation’s first spacewalk — a mission that underscores its aspirations as a global power.

But the nearly three-day voyage, along with the rest of China’s space program, also has an explicit political aim to enhance the government’s image at home and abroad. The China National Space Administration touts its work as important to “improve national strength and prestige.”


In many ways, China is cultivating the image of a great power, investing heavily in reputation-building projects. The country put a research satellite, known as the Chang’e 1, into orbit around the moon last year.

As China builds its world image and reputation as a global power, it also justifies CCP rule domestically. Al-Jazeera reports in “China set for spacewalk mission” on the implications of the mission:

Political analysts say China’s communist leaders have been keen to use the country’s achievements in space as a demonstration of economic and technological progress under their rule.

“It’s all about politics,” Dr Morris Jones, an Australia-based space analyst who has closely followed China’s space programme, told Al Jazeera.

He said the launch had been timed to “capitalise on the success and publicity surrounding their recent hosting of the Olympic games”.

The latest launch also comes at a politically significant time, with the government eager to rally national pride amid a spiralling health scandal over contaminated milk.

Due to its secrecy, another implication of China’s space program is the security threat that it poses not only to the U.S., but other countries as well. The Washington Post’s Jill Drew reports in “Space Inspires Passion And Practicality in China”:

Space experts outside China are generally at a loss to describe how its various space programs — manned and unmanned, civil and military — are organized and overseen, except that the vast bulk of its efforts are under the direction of the People’s Liberation Army. No official from China’s space agencies or government-owned space companies would be interviewed for this article.

In the paper, Yi recognizes the barriers to any such cooperation: “China is concerned with the implications of U.S. military space capabilities for its security interests, and the USA reciprocally is concerned with the potential build-up of Chinese capabilities to counter U.S. military space capabilities.”

Hitchens fears the two countries are teetering on the edge of just such a [military space] race, especially given the Chinese test of antisatellite technology to obliterate one of its weather satellites in early 2007. In turn, the United States destroyed one of its own satellites earlier this year.

Update: A message from space from the three astronauts of the Shenzhou VII spacecraft appeared on the website of Xinhua, China’s state news agency, before the shuttle ever took off. From the Telegraph:

The Xinhua agency, which has sometimes been accused of carrying state propaganda, took down the story and blamed it on a “technical error”.

The article described the Shenzhou VII space craft orbiting the Earth and outlined a conversation between the astronauts.

[…] The article later described the reaction to a successful outcome of the mission. “Ten minutes later, the ship disappears below the horizon. Warm clapping and excited cheering breaks the night sky, echoing across the silent Pacific Ocean.”

Read more on CDT about China’s first-ever spacewalk mission here.

See an animation of the spacewalk, via QQ. Danwei has links to more such animations and explains that Chinese portals all created their own versions at a cost of between 80,000 and 300,000 yuan, because everyone else was doing it.

See also previous CDT stories on U.S. and China’s space conflict .

September 25, 2008 9:01 AM
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