Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Modernizing into Obsolescence
China's Misguided Manned Space Program

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, October 14, 2003 --  

Now that China has become the third nation to send a man into outer space, it has reached an unprecedented peak in its misguided path toward modernizing into obsolescence. In years of buildup to this week's launch, China succeeded in wasting billions of dollars on an endeavor that has found no rational purpose in 40 years of Russian and American manned space flight.

Reports of China's plans in space read like a kitschy newsletter from a 1960s astronaut fan club. Bombastic predictions of a future Chinese space station, a moon base, and mining the lunar surface defy economic reality in a magnitude only possible by a giant communist dictatorship.1 Bizarre official plans to irradiate seeds in space to create better tasting vegetables serve only fuel scientific ridicule of the project that is being billed by the Chinese government as a milestone in the country's technical progress.2

Sadly, however, China's entry into the manned space club is not the only incident of its kind. It is merely the latest high-profile adventure to come from a broad government policy of pursuing mid-20th century technological greatness. When the Three Gorges Dam began filling earlier this year, China's leaders puffed themselves up with pride at creating the largest hydroelectric project in the world. Who, other than nominally Marxist dinosaurs, could believe that building a supersized version of depression-era technology could be considered progress? By flooding hundreds of miles of river valley and displacing millions for an unprofitable venture, the mega dam project proved only that China has a long way to go before it will begin behaving like a normal country.

Much of the great push toward development in China is more destructive than it is modernizing. Fantastic cultural treasures such as Lhasa in Tibet and Kashgar in East Turkestan are now marred by a ring of Soviet-style cheap concrete high-rises. Stunning medieval drilling derricks -- supporting what were until recent decades the deepest wells in the world3 -- are being torn down because they are considered old-fashioned and do not serve progress. Everywhere across China, leaders are bulldozing the country's truly glorious cultural heritage for the sake of the prefabricated, the modern, the supposedly glorious mid-20th century ideal.

But that ideal, like China's space program, is obsolete. Today, American Congressional leaders are asking whether they should bother continuing to pay to send men into space. The United States is tearing down its dams, and razing its ugly concrete high-rises, while preserving its cultural heritage. The other rich and advanced nations of the world are following similar paths.

China's silly effort to master manned forty-year-old manned space technology -- technology that has failed to provide any benefit to mankind -- is nothing more than an expensive distraction. Rural Chinese have some of the lowest living standards in the world. Surely the country's reported $2.2 billion4 annual space budget could be better spent to open its rural population to more economic opportunity.

This is the reality that must be stressed as China's propaganda machine glorifies its new space venture. The Chinese people's hearts should not be filled with pride at this achievement. They should be filled with anger at the wasteful actions of their misguided leaders.


1., Shenzhou Secrets: China Prepares for First Human Spaceflight, September 24, 2003

2. Washington Post, China Ready for Leap Into Orbit, October 9, 2003

3. Kurlansky, Mark, Salt: A World History, Penguin Books, 2002. pp 367-387

4., Playing with the Big Boys -- China Ready for Human Spaceflight, October 3, 2003