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May 19, 2008 | by  | in Opinion |
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Victorian Theses

Salient Political Editor Jackson Wood is doing his honours thesis on the interplay between nationalism and the Chinese space program. A continuation from an essay he wrote for an undergraduate course in 2006-2007 while in China, he is looking at how the Chinese government has used the space program to build a strong nationalistic image internally, and the ways that it has gone about that, as well as the ways the Chinese have exploited their space program to promote a strong image to the rest of the world, especially the United States and Russia.

The space program has strengthened Chinese nationalism in a number of ways. It has been reinforced through slogans, posters and architecture, and the first Chinese satellite played ‘The East Is Red’, a popular song about Chairman Mao. It serves to symbolically challenge the United States’ hegemony, and to emphasise Chinese strength. Last year they launched six Long March rockets, carrying satellites into space for Russian and Nigerian businesses.

The Space Race in the early post-War period occurred between the last two superpowers: the United States and the Soviet Union. With an independently developed space program, China puts itself in a position to claim that status as well, although it has always denied it intends to. China has already put a man into orbit, and plans to send a man to the moon by 2018. It has also signed international treaties against the militarisation of space, unlike the United States, ensuring that the Chinese space program continues to be seen in a positive light. Wood believes this reflects an image of “peaceful harmony … which is a key [to] understanding Chinese psychology”, while at the same time “presenting a war-like image, ‘cause they blow their own satellites out of space.”

The first part of Wood’s thesis is a study of the original space race, and the propaganda purposes it fulfilled for the superpowers. Wood uses this information to see how China has effectively learnt from their mistakes. For example, to prevent the public backlash which resulted in the United States following the Apollo 1 and Challenger disasters, China has been very quick to “hush up its accidents”, mirroring the Soviet Union and not publicising individual missions until they had been successful.

Wood notes that the Chinese concept of lian, closer in meaning to Maori mana than English face, is significant in the development of the space program. Lian is an important concept in haggling, and Wood sees the space program as a kind of haggling with the Chinese populace over internal social problems, but also with the West and Russia in simple power politics.

During his time in China, Wood learnt about the extent to which the space program is significant to modern Chinese identity. “There’s a huge market for space-related products.” You can go into the markets and buy space food.” Authentic space food, the same as the taikonauts eat.

Another example, “[In] the museum of Tiananmen Square, and they had wax sculptures of famous Chinese people. And the first person you saw was the first taikonaut, Yáng Lìwěi, and he greeted you as you came in. He’s got his hand up waving at you.”

“It’s just another way of reminding people, ‘Hey, you’re Chinese. Chinese are awesome, because they’re in space.’” Wood came up with the topic following a discussion with Professor Stephen Levine while in China, after Levine observed the NASA patch on Wood’s travelling bag from the International Space School he had attended at the Johnson Space Centre, Houston, Texas in 2002. But one of the main motivations was, as part of the first group of foreigners to enter the Foreign Ministry in Beijing, observing an enormous mural of carved stone, with a Long March rocket as the centrepiece, surrounded by satellites, kids playing, and an ancient horse archer. “It was powerful. That’s what really got me into it.”

There is very little English-language information on the Chinese space program, “which is also quite handy, because I’ve learnt some Chinese!” Wood laughs.

He has been invited to speak at a conference in Cardiff to present some of his research. However, he is unlikely to be able to attend, the cost of air travel proving prohibitive and the university is unprepared to provide the hook-ups.

“Space is fantastic. It’s the final frontier.”

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