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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:

此时此刻,尽管中国官媒强调“中国不会因为有了自己的空间站就改变和平利用外空的原则立场”,但西方媒体仍然坚疑不信。可以这样说,中国在太空探索领域的卓著成就,让美俄等老牌太空强国倍感压力,其中感到压力最大的恐怕就是中国的近邻日本。

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.

中国“天宫一号”发射成功的新闻,日本主流媒体均给予突出报道。仔细阅来就会发现,《读卖新闻》注重的是中国特意把发射时间选定在国庆节前夕,希望以此振奋国威,提升民气;《每日新闻》注重的是世界上已有的空间站几乎都是几个国家联袂打造,如今中国则是凭一国之力独自开发,强调“独自的技术”;《东京新闻》指出中国开始走上“宇宙强国”的道路;《产经新闻》则刻意报道围绕着发射中心的名称,内蒙与甘肃正在进行激烈的“争夺战”;《朝日新闻》指出此举意味着中国正在宇宙开发领域紧随美俄之后,打开了新的突破口。应该说,《日本经济新闻》的报道最为给力,不仅在第一版做出要闻式报道,还在第十四版做出详细报道,其分析也很雷人,一方面指出包括日本在内的西方媒体都怀疑“中国正在企图建立宇宙霸权”。另一方面怀疑中国未来对此可能进行“军事利用”,有些无奈地指出现在世界上只有中国一个国家可以把国家预算集中性地投入到战略领域,西方发达国家都处于不同程度的财政危机中而无法这样去做,同时中国载人空间站的开发又是在解放军的主导下进行。

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.

必须看到,日本媒体这样报道是有原因的。在开发太空领域方面,日本一直是落后于中国。迄今为止,不但日本国民对宇宙开发没有取得共识,日本国家也没有将其列入重大决策范畴。也许正因为这样,现任日本首相野田佳彦此前才在国会积极推动制定“宇宙基本法”,声称要以此“开创日本的百年大计”。不过,在经济低迷、震灾需救的今天,日本要想用国家拨款开发载人空间站,实在不是一件容易的事情。

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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