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China plans giant step this week
( 2003-10-13 16:34) (New York Times)

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, 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."

If China becomes the third nation to send an astronaut into space, as it plans to do on Wednesday, its 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 United States.

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 meant to orbit the earth 14 times in 21 hours before returning, 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 between next Wednesday and Friday from a 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 will be between one and 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, a 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, who remains the head of the military, which ultimately controls the space program, restarted the astronaut flight program in 1992. (In the 1970's, China discontinued a secret, manned program.) An editor at a major state newspaper, who spoke on condition of anonymity, attributed Mr. Jiang's interest, in part, to his fear of falling too far behind the West.

Mr. Jiang and his successor as president and party chief, Hu Jintao, are expected to attend the launching. "The space program is really Jiang Zemin's legacy, and if the launch is successful, he'll want his share of the glory," the editor said.
There have been reports of debate within China's scientific community about the value of spending so much money on space - the annual budget is $2 billion -- and whether the mission will generate real scientific breakthroughs. He Zuoxiu, a senior physicist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said he would applaud a successful launching, but cautioned against reading too much into one.

"If the launch is successful, we'll have joined the space club, but that doesn't mean we're a scientific power - far from it," he said.

Mr. He said China spends only about 1 percent of its gross domestic product on scientific research and development. He said he understood the reasons for sending astronauts into space, but noted that, scientifically, there may be more pressing areas of concern.

"China faces a severe energy shortage, the gap in oil production is growing," he said, offering examples. "Also, transport is extremely backward - look at the railways." But he concluded that "international prestige is the most important consideration here."

Asked about plans for a moon mission, he added:

"Some people will say that we have more pressing problems to deal with before taking on a moon landing, like feeding and clothing all our people."

It is unclear how much the preparations are resonating with the public, but one state-run newspaper reported this weekend that people were pouring into the launching area in hopes of getting a glimpse of the blastoff.

"The Chinese public is also deeply aware of China's image as a scientifically backward country, and I think the idea of reviving China as a scientific power is very popular," said Mr. Lei, the historian. He said the Chinese were stunned by American technical expertise in the Iraq war.

The emergence of China as a space power, possibly with military goals, has spurred some predictions of another space race. India, for one, is rushing to match China. But even as conservatives in the United States regard China's intentions warily, other experts minimize the chance of a coming race with America.

John M. Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, said it would likely take a decade for China to send an astronaut to the moon. He said the space program is developing anti-satellite weapons and robotic space weapons, but said he did not think that the Shenzhou V had military applications.

"It's earning them a seat at the central table on space issues," he said.

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