The Chinese government’s new white paper outlining its plans for the next five years in space mentions not only launching new orbiting laboratories, and manned missions to dock with its current orbiting lab, the Tiangong-1—but also actually placing a human being on the Moon, although it does not give a projected date for this goal. China has already successfully launched two lunar orbiters in 2007 and 2010. For its next phase, China plans to put rovers on the Moon to collect samples by 2016. A new launch center is under construction in Hainan, and upgrades are underway at the three existing launch sites in Jiuquan (Gansu province), Xichang (Sichuan) and Taiyuan (Shanxi). The white paper also outlines ambitions for 24-hour continuous, high-resolution surveillance of the Earth—which if realized, would put China on a level with the United States in this field. The white paper emphasizes that the People’s Republic “opposes weaponization or any arms race in outer space.” (Sapa-AFP, Jan. 7; Forbes, Dec. 30; Xinhua, NYT, Dec. 29)
Right-wingers in the US are of course not assuaged, warning that China is about to overtake the moribund NASA. E.g. Cal Thomas in a piece entitled “US can’t let China take lead in space” bemoans: “President Obama’s decision in 2010 to cut NASA’s budget and abandon the Constellation program, established by the Bush administration, which was charged with returning Americans to the moon by 2020 and creating an ‘extended human presence on the moon,’ has created a vacuum, which China will attempt to fill.”
Predictably, the announcement comes with yet another escalation of tensions in the South China Sea. The Philippines announced Jan. 8 that it has formally protested the sighting of two Chinese vessels accompanied by a naval ship near a Philippine-claimed shoal. Foreign Secretary Albert Del Rosario said Manila has “protested the recent sightings of two Chinese vessels and a People’s Liberation Army Navy, or PLAN, ship at the vicinity of Escoda Shoal in the West Philippine Sea on December 11 and 12 respectively. These intrusions of the Chinese are clear violations of the 2002 ASEAN-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea as well as the provision of the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea.” The Philippines refer to the South China Sea as the West Philippine Sea to assert its claim to sovereignty over some of the islands, reefs, shoals and cays also claimed in whole or in part by China, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan. (Kyodo News, Jan. 8)
The vast sums to be spent on a Chinese lunar project are put in perspective by an ostensibly unrelated but nonetheless highly telling piece in The Telegraph Jan. 8, “The mystery of China’s big spenders”—on the growing appetite for Western luxury goods among the new Chinese bourgeoisie:
Of course, the majority of the population are desperately poor. China’s barnstorming numbers—the economy grew 9.1 per cent in the last quarter compared with less than two per cent in most Western countries—disguise the fact that one billion people live a hand-to-mouth existence in rural villages or deprived urban neighbourhoods. But this makes it all the more important, if you are a member of the emerging middle class, to underline your “superior” status.
There are, in effect, two Chinas and the need to be seen to have arrived, to be one of the 300 million consumers with money to burn, means that it’s worth sitting for hours in a traffic jam just to show off your new BMW. Or spending six months scrimping and saving to afford a Gucci bag.
“China’s consumers represent an archipelago of wealth amid a sea of rural poverty,” says Arthur Kroeber, the editor of the Beijing-based China Economic Quarterly.
More than 77 per cent of the country work the land or have menial jobs that allow them to buy little more than food and clothes. With barely two yuan to rub together, they hold no allure for the big foreign brands, or even the stronger Chinese companies. The middle class, on the other hand—whose ranks swell by millions every year—represents a potential gold mine for global brands. But, before these brands can cash-in, they need to understand who they’re selling to.
The pace at which China has grown is hard to imagine from anywhere in the West. Currently, nine million Chinese move to a city every year—the equivalent of the country building a city the size of New York on an annual basis.
China’s communist party may have come to power on the back of a peasant revolution but it has stayed in power by presiding over an industrial revolution that has done in two decades what took the West almost two centuries to achieve. In the process, the party has strayed a long way from its roots. Chairman Mao coined many pithy aphorisms, but “shop till you drop” was not one of them. Today, those born in the Seventies and Eighties under the one child policy—known in China as “Little Emperors”—have shed the frugal habits of their parents and are the driving force behind a rampant consumerism.
Those left behind by the new prosperity—and on whose backs it has been achieved—are growing increasingly restive. The prestige of a lunar program may win China’s rulers some good will from their subjects. But Beijing’s current trajectory is (intentionally, it seems ) towards conflict with the declining unipolar superpower across the Pacific—and also (not intentionally, but probably knowingly) with its own people.
When the US temporarily grounded the Space Shuttle in 2005 (before abandoning the program entirely last year), we applauded—and invoked Gil Scott Heron’s classic 1969 protest rap against the Apollo program, “Whitey on the Moon.” With Beijing’s leaders apparently absolutely determined to emulate American hubris in every sense, China’s disenfranchised workers and peasants may soon have reason to protest “Little Emperors on the Moon.”