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Manned Space Program and Making of Chinese National Identity

Post Series: 2011: Volume 10, Number 1
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Manned Space Program and Making of Chinese National IdentityWith the successful launch of the Shenzhou V on October 15, 2003, China became the third country in the world that could independently send people into space. The accomplishment enkindled a worldwide debate around China’s success. Many western scholars believe that China’s manned spaceflight program aims to promote its economic, military, scientific and technological capability. They see the space program-a dual-use technology that either has a civil use or military applications-as one of the most important military strategies of the CCP, which could reinforce communist China’s military strength, as well as build and guarantee its geopolitical and strategic influences. In May 1999, The Cox Report generated by a U.S. Congressional committee claimed that for the CCP, the ultimate goal of promoting civilian economy is to support the building of modern military weapons for the PLA. It is estimated that China’s current missile range involves a wide area that directly threatens the United States’ national security. The Cox Report also asserts the Chinese scientist Qian Xuesen, founding father of the Chinese space program, was a spy who stole American missile technologies to boost the development of Chinese ballistic missiles1. Although there are many exaggerations in the Cox Report, it reveals great uneasiness of the western world. Admittedly there might be military consideration as well as other incentives such as economy, science and technology; however, on the other hand, the manned space program reflects the building of Chinese national identity. Based on Chinese government reports and newspapers, this article demonstrates that China’s human spaceflight was not merely a product of China’s economic, military, science and technology development concerns which have been already fully discussed by many scholars, rather it was a product of the national identity-making and a demand of the national spirit.

China’s space program was initiated early in 1956 when Qian Xuesen (Tsien Hsue-shen), one of China’s most senior scientists, urged China’s leaders to consider the possibilities of interplanetary space flight, even as China was confronting one of the worst famines in Chinese history2. In the 1970s, Qian brought forward a manned spaceflight proposal called the “714” project. However because of the weakness of the national power, backwardness of research ability and experience, lack of funding, and domestic political crises, the project was put aside by Chairman Mao. The 1970s was an era when the Chinese pulled together to reconstruct their newborn country with confidence and enthusiasm. It also was an era full of political movements that distracted the PRC’s development agenda. When Mao’s heir apparent, Minister of Defense Linbiao, was killed in an air crash in Mongolia on September, 13, 1971, Mao accused Linbiao and his group of planning a coup. Because of the bad economy resulting from the war and severe famine in the ‘60s, it was too hard for the Chinese government to support a project as costly as the space program. Mao emphasized the nation must take care of terrestrial needs first; space could come later. The space program was still laid aside when Deng Xiaoping took office. It was not resumed until January 1992. Unlike in the ‘70s, the Chinese government seemed quite ambitious and determined in the ’90s. They demanded the program have a great technological breakthrough before 1998, and make every effort to launch an airship in 1999 3. Why did China push its manned spaceflight program so hard in the ‘90 when it showed such reluctance during the ‘70?

First of all, many social crises went around in the last decade of the 20th century that threatened China’s national solidarity and prestige. Deng Xiaoping’s reform and open policy in 1978 turned China from a plan-oriented economy to a market-oriented economy, a new road to modernization. However, according to Yongnian Zheng, unlike many other countries whose modernization and centralization were almost identical, in modern China, modernization was characterized by decentralization. Decentralization promoted rapid economic growth and dramatic social changes on the one hand, but led to a nationwide crisis on the other such as the deterioration of national identity, traditional values, Marxist beliefs and Maoist faith4. The rise of separatists in Tibet and Xinjiang in the post-Mao period, the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 5 and the collapse of the Soviet Union caused the Chinese government to rouse national confidence and prestige, and redefine China’s national identity in the new condition home and abroad.

Secondly, a trend of technocracy emerged in contemporary China. Technological determinism became a dominant ideology with Chinese politicians. Science and technology appeared to be the panacea to all social problems. Michael Adas points out that after the Industrial Revolution, science and technology replaced religion as the dominant ideology in western societies6. So it was in modern China. Influenced by a “hundred years of humiliation” since the Opium War, Chinese people deeply believed their backwardness in science and technology left them vulnerable to attack. As early as late Qing Dynasty, Chinese intellectuals began to notice the important role of science and technology in the takeoff of western countries. To save the crumbling Qing Dynasty, they initiated a Self-Strengthening movement called tiyong (Chinese fundamentals and western technology). In 1919, science again was used as one of the slogans in China’s New Culture Movement aimed at awakening and saving China from the imperialist aggressions. In the PRC, by adopting and interpreting Marxist theory as one of the CCP’s theoretical guides, the Chinese people again were convinced by technological determinism. Marx’s classical saying: “The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist” 7 indicates the level of technology represents the degree of development of a society. Accordingly, Deng Xiaoping raised a slogan in the 1980s that “science and technology are the primary productive force,” encouraging Chinese to use science, technology and education to revive the greatness of the nation. Since then, numbers of science and engineering majors in Chinese universities are expanding greatly and quickly, compared to liberal arts majors. Scientists and engineers soon became heroes in Chinese people’s minds. More and more Chinese children dreamed of being scientists and engineers when they grew up; more and more students chose science and engineering majors; even more notably, more and more officers in Chinese government had science or engineering education backgrounds since the 1980s. In a study on the 16th Central Committee of the CCP, Li Cheng and Lynn White concluded that throughout the history of the PRC, “social scientists have usually been marginalized and occasionally despised.” 8 They noted that among the full members of the 15th (1997) and 16th (2002) CCs who have college degrees, 55.6% had engineering and science majors in the 15th CC, and 45.5% in the 16th CC.9 Cheng and White as well as other scholars assumed that post-Mao China has a trend of technocracy in which technocrats emerged as the core leadership in the CCP. Many Chinese politicians, especially those who have engineering degrees, believe science and technology are the most effective way to solve all the problems in China.

Facing crises home and abroad on the one hand, having technological determinism ideology and the trend of technocracy on the other, it is not surprising to see post-Mao China using concrete technology to rebuild its endangered national identity. In order to highlight “Chineseness” and “Greatness,” the Chinese government constructed a series of concrete images to identify the Chinese nation and its long progressive history. This intention could be seen apparently in all propaganda at home and abroad, especially at the opening celebration of 2008 Olympics in Beijing, in which China’s Four Great Inventions – paper making, printing, the compass and gunpowder – were well displayed. It provided an impression that China’s civilization is continuous and progressive, represented by a series of advanced scientific and technological achievements. In the Qin Dynasty (770 BC), China built one of the Seven Wonders in the world, The Great Wall; The Four Great Inventions represented the great achievements from the Han to Song Dynasties; Zheng He’s voyage to the Indian Ocean in the Ming Dynasty revealed that Chinese navigation technology was at the top of the world at that time. For the CCP, the culture of ancient China was the root of the Chinese nation, and these images representing Chinese civilization were always sources of pride for the Chinese. When it comes to communist China, the CCP again strived to use concrete images to continue its national image-making. Even in the 1950s and ‘60s, when the Mao administration was so welcomed, trusted, and esteemed by the mass, they still drastically extolled their satellites and atomic bomb, showing how great the nation was and how wise the leadership of the CCP.

However, with the domestic policy change since the ‘80s, tensions grew gradually. The new generation of the CCP leadership, most of whom were technocrats, felt a lack of image consistency. How to mitigate pressure at home and abroad, how to keep authority, how to continuously inspire people’s national pride, and how to keep the consistency of the national image became important issues for the CCP in the post-Mao era. The manned spaceflight program was well fit for these considerations.

As expected, soon after the success of the Shenzhou V, immense enthusiasm swept the country. This inspiring news dominated the headlines of China’s main newspapers, magazines and TV news right after the successful flight. People’s Daily ran 100,000 extra copies which were quickly snapped up, as did other papers. Schoolchildren drew pictures of spaceflights and showed them to press and television. In addition, 10.2 million stamps were printed in Yang Liwei’s honor10.

Interestingly, Chinese people throughout the country did not know the news until the rocket was safely and steadily flying in space, when success was fully guaranteed by the experts. It was revealed later that journalists from all the major mass media had already congregated at the launch site with sufficient preparations at the very beginning, but they were commanded to hold the news and report live as soon as the mission was guaranteed successful. Interestingly too, Jiang Zeming, China’s president at that time, had not been to the site. Instead, Hu Jingtao represented the government at the exciting moment. Obviously, it was intentionally planned by the government since manned spaceflight was not simply a technological issue for China, it also was an image project, which could not be stained by any deficiencies.

As soon as experts announced the success of the Shenzhou V, Hu Jingtao represented Jiang Zeming by giving a speech immediately from the launch site, extolling the virtues of China’s manned spaceflight for the first time. He highly praised hardworking, enterprising, serious-minded, innovative, factualistic and cooperative workers and researchers in the manned spaceflight program. These characteristics were dubbed the “spaceflight virtues.” In the speech, he compared the “spaceflight virtues” to the virtues shown in the making of a bomb, missile and satellite in the Mao period, and proclaimed they were the essence for the revival of the Great 11.

After the successful launch of the Shenzhou V, the Chinese government held ceremonies for each launch and the main leaders gave celebratory speeches every time. On November 26, 2005, President Hu Jingtao gave another inspiring address for Shenzhou VI, in which he stressed the important role of science and technology in promoting economy and education. Once again he highly extolled the spaceflight virtues, which took up half of his speech. He said, “The manned spaceflight virtues are a development of the virtues of Liang Dan Yi Xing (bomb, missile and satellite) in the new era. They vividly represent patriotism, nationalism and reformism. In the road of constructing socialistic modernization, we should greatly publicize the spaceflight virtues over the whole society in order to increase the national pride and confidence, and intensify the national solidarity….”12 Compared to Hu’s endeavor in expatiating on the manned spaceflight virtues, the economic and scientific benefits of this program in his address seemed very broad and unclear. In the speech, he stressed the key function of science and technology in promoting economic, social and cultural development. He particularly emphasized the importance of China’s independent scientific innovation, and highly lauded the Chinese manned spaceflight as a representation of “Made in China project” in order to encourage more independent innovations. Two themes were apparent in Hu’s speech, the manned spaceflight virtues and “Chineseness.” As a result, a neutral technology was tinted by certain identity that was not neutral any more. The manned spaceflight first of all was marked by a nationality-Chinese. Then it became the embodiment of certain virtues-hardworking, innovative, cooperation, united, enterprising, serious-minded and factualistic etc. Combining the two, Chinese leaders endowed the concrete space technology with a new meaning, an embodiment of the national identity which is flawless, inspiring and honorable.

The Chinese government intentionally created a perfect hero image – the first Chinese astronaut, Yang Liwei – so impeccable and consummate, and encompassing all the best virtues of the Chinese nation. Without exception, all Chinese media described Yang Liwei as a good child, good student and excellent pilot inborn. According to official biographies, Yang had a “happy and tranquil childhood” and was “very intelligent and a good team leader of his playmates.” Excelling in mathematics and math competitions, Yang scored high on entrance exams and went to the best middle school in his county. Joining the People’s Liberation Army at the age of 18, Yang was recruited by one of the Chinese Air Force’s top aviation colleges, where he earned the highest grade in every class he took. Upon graduation, he became a fighter pilot and was rated as an “elite” member of his Air Force division.13 Yang’s predisposition to be a pilot stemmed from both an excellent physical condition and a perfect psychological quality. He was a quick learner and fast reactor, neither smoking nor drinking and had solid flying knowledge and experience.14 All in all, Yang was exactly “the right man” to take the mission.

Yang was not only technically a highly qualified pilot, he also was hardworking, friendly and humble, which were noble virtues in Chinese value. One of his colleagues commented Yang was so modest that he never talked about himself. He never mentioned his hobbies such as travel and music, and even did not express his own individual mood. By contrast, he always regarded himself as one plain pilot in China’s manned spaceflight team. In his mind, there was no individual “I,” but only a collective “we.” 15

In Confucian China, one’s evaluation is tightly related to one’s private life. Being considerate to family is estimated as one of the most important and indispensable virtues for a gentleman. Yang also fits this model. Yang’s wife, Zhang Yumei told journalists that “Yang is a considerate husband. He loved me and our family, he tried every effort to take care of the family in despite of his busy work. When I gave birth to little Ningkang (their son), Yang cooked for me every day. Although Liwei was very busy after he joined the manned spaceflight program and seldom came home, he often called home, and made every effort to accompany Ningkang and me as soon as he had some time.” 16 When Yang was in space, Chinese media broadcasted nationwide that Yang called his wife and son, telling them he was fine and asking them not to worry about him.

As soon as he successfully completed China’s first manned spaceflight mission, Yang Liwei was honored as one of the “top ten outstanding Youths in China,” “China’s spaceflight hero” (Nov. 7, 2003)17 and awarded as “major general.”18 His news appeared on the front page of every main Chinese newspaper and dominated most of China’s mass media for several days. He became a public figure overnight. After returning, he was much busier than before. Besides regular training, Yang was invited to give speeches to university students, government officers and factory workers, and was interviewed by hundreds of journalists, in which he was highly lauded.

Right after the success, members of the manned spaceflight team formed a reporting team that traveled all over the country to advocate the manned spaceflight virtues. This team was made up of Yang Liwei, manned spaceflight scientists, researchers, engineers and workers. In the year after the successful launch, this reporting team visited most of the major cities in China including Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, Chongqing, Shengyang, Hongkong and Macao etc., covering nearly every corner of Chinese territory. It was reported that people in all these cities welcomed the team with tremendous enthusiasm and admiration. In Tianjin, five-thousand people gathered at the exit of Jing-Jin highway, beating drums and gongs, singing and dancing to welcome the coming of the manned spaceflight team. In Chongqing, the city turned into a sea of people and flowers when the visiting team passed by. In Yang Liwei’s hometown Shenyang, jubilation permeated the whole city. Four-thousand people stood along the 16-mile road to welcome their hero back.19 It was reported that during a 100-minute report in Chongqing, the audience interrupted 67 times with thunderous applause. One undergraduate student said even the most famous speechmaker would hardly receive such a welcome.20 One third grade student in Tianjin No.7 middle school named Guo Fangjie told journalists, “Yang Liwei is a ‘star’ in my heart. He is also a ‘star’ in people’s hearts in all of our country.”21

The fervor of success was immersed in every social activity. In Haikou, the first international sand sculpture exhibition included a series of sculptures with the theme “the heaven and the earth.” One was a sand statue of Yang Liwei standing on the top of the returning capsule of Shenzhou V. The 8.5-meter-high sculpture included a large Earth model at the base, and was called the highest work in the exhibition. Universities such as Tsinghua and Nankai also invited Yang Liwei to give reports to enthusiastic students. In addition, universities and high schools also held a series of activities such as scientific and technological competitions called “manned spaceflight virtues” to commit to memory the country’s exciting moment and encourage the youth to learn the manned spaceflight virtues.

In short, Shenzhou V serves as one part of a series of continuous and systematic efforts by the CCP in the new era to make Chinese national images and identity at home and abroad. The CCP assigned distinctive cutting-edge technologies to each stage of Chinese history in order to show the greatness of the Chinese nation. It was far beyond party politics. Through highlighting two themes: “Science and Technology” and “Chineseness,” Shenzhou V combined the great nation’s ancient dream of flying into the heavens with the contemporary requirement for consolidating unity and revival, to become a new symbol in Chinese history.


Books and Papers:

Adas, Michael, Machines as the Measure of Men: Science, Technology and Ideologies of Western Dominance, Ithaca : Cornell University Press, 1989.

Brown, Peter J, “China’s space pioneer under the microscope,” Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd,, accessed by 2010-3-8

Dick, Steven J and Roger D. Launius ed., Social Impact of Spaceflight, NASA, 2007. P106

Harvey, Brian, China’s Space Program-From Conception to Manned Spaceflight, Springer Praxis, UK, 2004. P13.

Li Cheng and Lynn White, “The Sixteenth Central Committee of The Chinese Communist Party,” Asian Survey, July 2003, P553-97.

Marx, Karl The Poverty of Philosophy, Progress Publishers, 1955. Chapter 2, part I.

Zheng, Yongnian, Discovering Chinese Nationalism in China, Modernization, Identity, and International Relations, Cambridge University Press, 1999. P.21.

On-line Sources:

China Manned Space Engineering, Nov. 26, 2005, accessed by 2009-12-10.

China Youth, Oct.25, 2003, accessed by 2009-12-11

Jie Fang Jun Newspaper (PLA Newspaper), Oct.16, 2003,, accessed by 2010-1-23.

Lifeweek, Dec. 9, 2003, access by 2009-12-11

People, Nov. 23, 2003,, accessed by 2010-2-7

Southern Daily, Aug. 9, 2004, accessed by 2009-12-11

Xin Hua News, June 22, 2008,, accessed by 2010-2-6

Xin Hua News, Nov. 7, 2003,, accessed by 2010-2-6

Xinhua News, Nov. 11, 2003, accessed by 2009-12-11

Xinhua News, Sep. 24, 2008. “China’s manned spaceflight program”,, accessed by 2010-1-10.

  1. Cox report,, accesses by 2010-3-6
  2. By Peter J Brown, “China’s space pioneer under the microscope”, Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd,, accessed by 2010-3-8
  3. Xinhua News, Sep.24, 2008. “China’s manned spaceflight program”,, accessed by 2010-1-10.
  4. Yongnian Zheng, Discovering Chinese Nationalism in China, Modernization, Identity, and International Relations, Cambridge University Press, 1999. P.21.
  5. The Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, referred to in most of the world as the Tiananmen Square massacre, were a series of demonstrations in and near Tiananmen Square in Beijing in the PRC beginning on 14 April 1989. Led mainly by students and intellectuals, the protest’s aims were pro-democracy and anti-corruption. The movement lasted seven weeks, ended with a crackdown by the PRC government.
  6. Michael Adas, Machines as the Measure of Men: Science, Technology and Ideologies of Western Dominance, Ithaca : Cornell University Press, 1989.
  7. Karl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy, Progress Publishers, 1955. Chapter 2, part I.
  8. Li Cheng and Lynn White, “The Sixteenth Central Committee of The Chinese Communist Party”, Asian Survey, July 2003, P553-97.
  9. Ibid
  10. Brian Harvey, China’s Space Program – From Conception to Manned Spaceflight, Springer Praxis, UK, 2004. P13.
  11. Jie Fang Jun Newspaper (PLA Newspaper), Oct.16, 2003,, accessed by 2010-1-23.
  12. China Manned Space Engineering, Nov. 26, 2005, accessed by 2009-12-10.
  13. Steven J Dick and Roger D. Launius ed., Social Impact of Spaceflight, NASA, 2007. P106
  14. China Youth, Oct.25, 2003, accessed by 2009-12-11
  15. Lifeweek, Dec.9, 2003, access by 2009-12-11
  16. Southern Daily, Aug.9, 2004, accessed by 2009-12-11
  17. Xin Hua News, Nov. 7, 2003,, accessed by 2010-2-6
  18. Xin Hua News, Jun 22, 2008,, accessed by 2010-2-6
  19. People, Nov 23, 2003,, accessed by 2010-2-7
  20. People, Nov 23, 2003,, accessed by 2010-2-7
  21. Ibid
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