China: The Cost of Space Ambition

China's launch last week of the Tiangong-1 inhabitable space station signals a shift in the space race, one everyone should be worried about. Especially the USA's allies in Asia, right?

Among those who would disagree is Jiang Feng, editor-in-chief of the Japan-based Chinese-language newspaper New-generation Overseas Chinese; in a blog post [zh] earlier this week in which he looks at how Japanese media covered the news of the launch, Jiang attributes a large part of the motivation behind China's space program to the simple fact that China happens to have more money than most countries right now to keep funding space exploration.

Inside the Jiuquan satellite launch center. Image by AAxanderr via Wikimedia Commons, in public domain.

Inside the Jiuquan satellite launch center. Image by AAxanderr via Wikimedia Commons, in public domain.

Jiang also argues that space exploration benefits all humankind, even contrasting the kind of Chinese engineering that led to the train collision in July with Japan's superiority in robotics and other areas of critical space travel technology.

He writes:


Right now, we find that Western media remain doubtful [about our intentions in space], even after emphasis from official media that “China will not change its stance regarding peaceful uses of outer space just because it now has its own space station.” Put another way, China's remarkable achievements in the field of space exploration have left the United States, Russia and other countries with presence in outer space feeling some heat. The country feeling the most pressure is none other that China's neighbor, Japan.


The news of China's successful launch of Heavenly Palace 1 has been reported on by all mainstream Japanese media.

Looking closely at these reports, we see that The Daily Yomiuri's focus has been that China deliberately chose to launch the space station on the eve of National Day to inspire people and raise a sense of prestige for the country; The Mainichi Daily News’ focus was that of all the countries now with their own space station, nearly all these reached that stage through cooperation with other nations, and China is the first country to date to achieve this through its own efforts, through “its own technology”; The Tokyo Shimbun pointed out that China is now on the path toward becoming a “great space power”; Sankei Shimbun, meanwhile, focused its reports on the name of the launch center and the “fight” between Inner Mongolia and Gansu province to claim it as located within each of their borders; The Asahi Shimbun's take is that China is now catching up to earlier advancements in the space exploration field from the United States and Russia, and has now made a breakthrough of its own.

Reports from The Nikkei, however, have been the most encouraging, as not only was the story put on the front page, but an in-depth report was also run on pg. 14. The analysis was stunning, pointing out on one hand that Japanese and Western media suspect that “China is now attempting to establish hegemony in space,” while at the same time suspecting that China possibly intends to use outer space for its own military purposes in the future. It wrote of how some media have helplessly pointed out that China is the only nation on earth now which is capable of concentrating its national budget on strategic investments, that the varying degrees of economic crisis in western developed nations have left them unable to do the same, while development of China's inhabitable space station was led by the People's Liberation Army.


It must be clear why Japanese media have chosen to report this news as they have. In the field of space exploration, Japan has always been behind China. Even today, not only have the people of Japan yet to come to a consensus regarding the nation's space program, but even the Japan the state itself has failed to make it an issue of key strategic importance. This, perhaps, is the reason why Japan's current prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, recently went before legislators in Japan to press for a “Basic Law” for the universe, saying that it could serve as the beginning of a major “hundred-year” plan for Japan. Given the current economic slump, however, and the ongoing recovery from the earthquake disaster, if Japan decides that it wants to use state funding to build its own manned space station, that's not going to be an easy mission at all.

1 comment

  • JohnT

    These so-called countries that seem to be behind China in the space race are countries that are more concerned with basic human rights and advancing the rights and modicum of life-style than a misguided national pride.

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