China's leaders seek space boost
By Willy Wo-Lap Lam
HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- Beijing's man-in-space extravaganza has moved into top gear with China's leaders banking on the flight confirming China's status as a quasi-superpower and boosting the communist party's goal of securing "a long reign and perennial stability."
China's great leap heavenward also has military implications, particularly regarding the People's Liberation Army's (PLA) plans to take back Taiwan should the island declare independence.
It is no coincidence that the launch of the Shenzhou V spacecraft is scheduled after a pivotal plenary session of the party Central Committee, one of whose objectives is to highlight the Hu Jintao administration's commitment to breaking new ground.
The aeronautical breakthrough is intended to buttress the legitimacy of "Fourth Generation" leaders such as President Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao, who still lack national stature and recognition.
For the rest of its tenure -- expected to run into 2013 -- the Hu-Wen team hopes to harness massive popular support by pushing space exploration to new frontiers.
In the run up the launch China has been ramping up enthusiasm for all-things space with official media trumpeting plans to send a space station into orbit and a series of unmanned probes to the moon within three to five years.
Once that is in place a "taikonaut" -- a Chinese astronaut -- could be walking on the lunar surface within a decade.
"The space program will enable Hu and Wen to claim they have finally realized the 'Four Modernizations' goal laid down by former leaders including the late Premier Zhou Enlai and late patriarch Deng Xiaoping," said a veteran party cadre.
Moreover, the current so-called Fourth Generation leadership hopes the man-in-space game plan will ignite a mega-tonnage of patriotism, upon which the party relies to sustain national cohesiveness given the obsolescence of Communist ideology.
On the international front, China's ability to be the third country, after the U.S. and Russia, to catapult a man into orbit is also intended to boost the nation's global clout.
As the Beijing-run Hong Kong daily Wen Wei Po pointed out in a commentary, both the U.S. and Russia had underestimated "China's capability to rely on its own resources to put a man in space."
However, it is a measure of Beijing's increasing sophistication in international affairs that it has started an early campaign to debunk efforts to link China's wizardry in astronautics to the "China threat" theory.
Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhang Qiyue said last week that China's space program was dedicated only to the "peaceful utilization of outer space."
"China has never participated and will never participate in an arms race of any form in outer space," Zhang said.
However, there is no question that the country's aeronautical developments are undertaken mainly by departments of the People's Liberation Army -- and that its achievements in space research will have significant military implications.
For example, satellite spying over Taiwan will give the PLA a crucial edge if it were to launch an attack on the island it regards as a "renegade province."
At a time when the Hu-Wen leadership has vowed to spend more resources on China's "disadvantaged sectors," there is opposition to lavishing hundreds of billions of yuan on adventures in outer space.
However, given that the communist leadership has recently stepped up control over the media, dissent on aeronautical and other issues has been largely muzzled.
"The party Central Committee plenum has just announced a new deal for poor peasants and jobless workers -- and lots of money is needed," said a Beijing-based newspaper editor.
"The space program is a waste of funds because even if we can put a man on the moon, we shall merely be replicating what the U.S. did in the 1970s."
These voices in the wilderness, however, will likely be drowned out by the cacophonous outbursts of national pride that will greet the larger-than-life exploits of China's first-ever taikonaut.