China rising

October 17, 2003

THE 21-HOUR journey of the first Chinese astronaut into space and his capsule's successful landing yesterday morning on an isolated Mongolian plain was a decidedly low-tech affair, a feat pioneered by the former Soviet Union and the United States four decades ago. But the taikonaut's 14 trips around the world inescapably symbolize that the new century may well be China's -- or at the very least that a rising China aims to contend with what it views as U.S. world dominance.

This week's "sacred mission" -- as Chinese President Hu Jintao called it -- could be followed in a few years by efforts to launch its own space station and perhaps by 2010 to land on the moon. Analysts see a military agenda to counter the U.S. lead in global positioning technology and space-based missile defense; to that end, China is expected to help pay for a competing GPS system put up by the European Union.

But for Chinese leaders ever seeking legitimacy and power, the aims of this show of course were far broader. As one government statement put it: "The development of manned space technology has great significance for improving China's overall national strengths and its international influence [and] boosting the sense of national pride."

Many Americans may not fathom the depths to which Chinese nationalism runs and the domestic pride taken in China's growing economic and technological power. Behind it are the still palpable wounds of China's protracted slide from greatness centuries ago, a fall abetted by encounters with the West. That historical sense of injustice often infuses Chinese admiration for the wealth and power achieved by the United States and Chinese aspirations to a similar superpower status. And as with the space shot, the Chinese leadership is using its latecomers' advantage -- the development path carved by the United States -- to hasten toward that goal.

Of course, much of China remains mired in Third World poverty, prompting even some Chinese to openly question the priority placed on the manned flight. But at the same time, much of China is moving rapidly in touch with the world stage, if only because it has had the world's fastest growing economy for the last two decades and within 25 years may have the world's largest economy in absolute terms.

For Americans, who tend to swing widely from romanticizing China to demonizing it, this is a challenge. Ballooning production from increasingly sophisticated Chinese export platforms are swamping the world and U.S. markets, driving deflation, taking jobs and, if U.S. unemployment remains high next year, inevitably interjecting the issue of China into the 2004 presidential campaign. U.S. protectionists are apt to warn that American consumers -- with their purchases of $120 billion worth of Chinese-made goods -- are helping fund rapid technological gains by the Chinese military.

So China's "Great Leap Skyward" was, indeed, a shot across the bow of the United States. It symbolizes that a race is on -- not so much a space race as one to the multi-polar world to which the world's most populous nation aspires.

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