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Space: China's Economic Frontier


The rise of China has progressed another chapter recently with high profile developments in its relatively new but rapidly growing space program. This trend towards extraterrestrial dominance is well within the country’s goals, particularly when it comes to meeting special economic targets. In fact, space might be the most important region to watch when observing China’s contemporary actions.

This post will outline in brief the space program promoted by Beijing with an analysis of the data, political, and economic development implications of such focused national efforts. As a result, China is employing a policy model that holds key historical influences in a fast-paced, globalized international context, a reality that is interesting and important to consider going forward.

China’s Space Program

China is just the third country to ever send humans into space, behind Russia and the United States. Like those two predecessor countries, China also invests in manned space flight as part of a broader strategy to obtain geopolitical dominance.

Beijing’s space program is threefold: lunar exploration, space station development, and satellite positioning.

Lunar Exploration

Building from the United States’ inspiration during its 1960s determination and successful moon landing, China has very recently performed an unmanned lunar landing on the far side of the moon. This feat is a worldwide first and has the potential to develop national pride (and pride in the regime which delivered it).

Space Station Development

In a sign of long-term space presence, China has decided to construct its own space station to orbit the earth, constructing a standalone structure similar to the former Russian Mir station which hosted astronauts before the development of the International Space Station. This China Space Station is expected to be launched sometime in 2020.

Satellites: The Importance of Data Control

By far the most politically relevant aspect of the Chinese space program is the satellite network to be controlled by Beijing. These pieces of infrastructure lie at the heart of China’s information policy and regime of total control. Current advancements in this technology also strike at the core of China’s contemporary social and political desires for continued economic growth.

For China, data control performs two purposes:

The Economic Orbit

While the economic reasoning behind an enhanced space program makes sense in the eyes of Chinese policymakers, the political reality of such activity is less clear cut. China’s overall goal in space exploration is highly terrestrial; the country merely seeks to reap the same benefits in innovation and product development seen in the United States during the 1960s Space Race. The hope is that such technological breakthroughs - much like what has happened with similar military technologies - can trickle down into the marketplace with the potential for massive profits and continued national growth. Given that China’s politics are intricately tied to economic performance, this goal setting has occurred within the context of strengthening current government legitimacy and stifling meaningful challenges to its rule over a huge country.

This makes China’s official reaction to the momentous far side of the moon launch to be especially illuminating. Rather than non-stop broadcasts of the event, state media limited coverage to just a handful of words on the nightly news program. This contrasted with near universal headlines of the event in foreign news outlets. What is the source of such a wide discrepancy, particularly one that shines a positive light on China? It turns out that many influential Chinese, grumbling about a likely country-wide economic slowdown, are critical of the government’s massive (and perhaps excessive) investments in space. Such a reality remains significant even when considering other reasons for the muted media coverage, including as a protective measure against the government losing face (in the case of launch failure).

From this situation one must wonder if the outcomes of the Chinese space program are headed more towards the demise of the Soviet Union, which quickly buckled under its own economic weight, rather than the market-fueled growth of the post-war United States. It is interesting to note given that both China and the Soviet Union have existed as (nominally) Communist countries. In fact, Chinese leaders have studied the Soviet case for decades in order to avoid such a collapse for Beijing. Perhaps this is another chapter that leaders in China are now studying more intensely in order to reap the benefits of space travel while mitigating political disruptions.

Future Policy Projections

China faces a future with obstacles and opportunity across (and beyond) the world. The largest challenge is if there is a sustained upcoming economic slowdown. Confrontation with the United States over trade has exacerbated inherent pressures in the Chinese economy and leave Beijing with fewer avenues for relief. That said, the commitment to government spending (as expected of a left-wing, Communist country) has the potential to alleviate some pain.

The key questions will center around where to distribute government funds and how. Popular sentiment understandably indicates that the best investments are towards improving individual lives through social programs - and indeed needed reforms to social insurance are making progress towards this goal, countering a culture traditionally oriented towards support from one’s family alone. Foreign policies such as One Belt One Road also serve to improve the economy by improving trade infrastructure and forging new international marketplace relationships. But where does space fall into this picture?

I think the purpose of space travel needs to be better articulated to the people of China in order to maintain its worth for government funding. The benefits of such intensive scientific experimentation and innovation are often seen by the public years later, and patriotic sentiments are viewed differently by this current national population raised in the (mostly) free market. That said, China’s investments in space have the potential to continue the progress of humanity towards higher goals and standards of living, a fact that should be made more justified and powerful in the eyes of its people.

I welcome your thoughts. Please feel free to respond in the comments or to email me at info@wpglobalconsulting.com to discuss further.

William VogtComment