China’s first astronaut (or taikonaut, to use the Chinese term) returned safely to earth Thursday after spending 21 hours in orbit. The feat made China the third country to independently run a manned space mission, after the former Soviet Union and the United States. The success of taikonaut Yang Liwei’s Shenzhou 5 mission earned high praise from Chinese leaders, international media, and even U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who called it “a step forward for all mankind.”
Papers around the world praised China for successfully developing its space program, though many commentators had reservations about the significance of the achievement. Hong Kong’s Apple Daily called the achievement unusual, saying, “Such a pioneering and adventurous spirit is precisely what Chinese culture has routinely lacked … in the past” (translation courtesy of the Guardian). A Financial Times editorial quoted a space expert who called Shenzhou 5 a “value multiplier” that “makes every Chinese missile more threatening, every Chinese export television more valuable and every statement by Chinese scientists and engineers more credible.” A wire story in Pakistan’s Nation included a quote predicting that China will have its own space station in time for the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
Many other papers criticized the launch as scientifically insignificant, since most of the experiments conducted on board could have been completed without a human pilot. Japan’s Asahi Shimbun discussed the space launch in an editorial, arguing that Japan still led China with its sophisticated satellites, which are what really matter: “There is not much to be gained by sole-country manned space endeavors.” Although Japan gives economic aid to a country that just spent millions surpassing Japan’s space program, the article argued that “Japan’s role … is to do all it can to involve China in international space cooperation.”
Papers were divided on the issue of whether world leaders should cooperate further with China’s space program. The United States has had a rocky history on this issue because of previous instances where it has accused Chinese scientists of stealing U.S. missile and satellite technology. However, China is already working with the European Union on a new satellite navigation method to rival the global positioning system, which is maintained by the U.S. Department of Defense. An op-ed in the Wall Street Journal Asia argued against cooperation for somewhat different reasons, calling for Washington to resist the urge to work with the Shenzhou program, since “China proliferates dangerous missiles, protects North Korea’s nuclear programme, and continues to threaten a democratic Taiwan. Peace with China on Earth should precede cooperation in space.”
A more alarmist article in the Sydney Morning Herald implied that the Chinese Shenzhou program, which is run by the People’s Liberation Army, is aimed at developing expertise in space warfare. According to one U.S. military expert speaking at a conference just hours after Shenzhou went into orbit, U.S. forces “depend very, very heavily on space capabilities, and so that is a statement of the obvious to our potential threat, whoever that may be.” Other experts quoted in the article agreed that space would be a primary battlefield of the next few decades but noted that “China was not necessarily a rival and many nations had the ability to place devices in space.”
Meanwhile, China’s harshest critic viewed the successful Shenzhou 5 launch with suspicion. An editorial in Taiwan’s Taipei Times ran under the pointed headline, “Another ‘Great Leap,’ continued poverty.” The piece concurred with world opinion on the Shenzhou 5’s questionable merits: “Scientifically there is not much China could do with a man in space that could not have been done with an unmanned space program.” Worse still, the hoopla of space exploration overshadowed “the miserable hand-to-mouth struggle that is still the lot of the majority of Chinese.”