TCS Daily

China's New Frontier

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - October 14, 2003 12:00 AM

China has announced that it plans a manned space launch this week, and it's already revving up the propaganda machine to take advantage of the event. The theme - and particularly the subtext -- is that China is now a superpower, too. Superpowers have manned space programs, and now China will have one, so. . . .


I don't mean to make fun of this, because it's actually a good thing. American astronauts, Russian cosmonauts, and now Chinese "taikonauts," all represent something better than run-of-the-mill superpower competition. If China thinks that putting a human being in orbit does more for its international prestige than, say, invading Taiwan and perhaps setting off another World War, that's to everyone's advantage.


Taking a longer-term perspective, it also represents a major shift in Chinese philosophy, which may or may not be such a good thing. Since the Ming Dynasty, China has looked inward. Regarding Chinese life, government, and culture as the quintessence of perfection, the Chinese regarded foreigners, and their doings, as largely beneath their notice. This attitude became so pronounced that a huge program of maritime exploration, one that took Chinese ships to the coast of Africa, and might have gotten them to the Americas before Columbus, was cancelled. As author Ben Bova writes:


But while the Ming fleets were achieving such stunning feats, the
mandarins who ran the Chinese court were unhappy with the costs of
building and operating the ships. Moreover, Grand Admiral Zheng He and
most of the other commanders in the fleet were eunuchs, slaves since
early childhood, and were thus distrusted and despised by the
Confucian mandarins.

The mandarins were the bureaucrats who actually ran the government. In
1423 or thereabouts, as the emperor Zhu Di lay dying, the bureaucrats
set about to destroy the Ming fleets.

The bureaucrats issued edicts banning further voyages beyond China's
coastal waters. They prohibited all foreign trade, proclaiming that
everything worth having or worth knowing already existed within
China's borders. They justified their decisions by saying that the
fleets were too expensive. They cut costs.

They burned the ships.

The bureaucrats feared dilution of their power within China more than they desired knowledge of -- or even power over -- the outside world. As Bova notes, this began a five-hundred year period of Chinese humiliation at the hands of outsiders. The launch of "Shenzhou 5," whose name, we're told, means "Divine Vessel," may represent quite a turning point in China's history -- a time when China has begun to look outward, not inward, for the first time since, well, Western civilization became a power in the world.


Is that a good thing? Will we see (as I've suggested before) a new space race with an ambitious China putting pressure on the United States and Europe to match its efforts in space?


It's too early to tell, but it's certainly looking more plausible than it did a few years ago. Which raises another question: Is the United States in a position to compete?


In one sense, our situation looks good: China is just getting around to doing something that the United States managed before I was born. But, then again, to the haughty Chinese bureaucrats who first encountered them, European explorers were playing catch-up,
too. . . . .


NASA just observed its 45th birthday, and, as sometime TCS author Rand Simberg observes, its situation is not a happy one. NASA did well in its early years, but quickly ossified, with its managers bearing a more-than-passing resemblance to the Mandarins who shot down China's exploration program: more concerned with their own position than with overall prospects. And in the United States, even model rocketry is in trouble as the result of dumb Homeland Security regulations. ( is a website set up to address this issue.)


And that's important. Because while NASA's bureaucracy seems stuck in neutral, it may be the amateurs who save us: Amateurs are planning to launch humans into space without government assistance, in pursuit of the so-called "X-prize." (You can read more here.) So while the glass-is-half-empty analysis might be that our bureaucrats are now less energetic than the Chinese, the glass-is-half-full analysis might be this: that Chinese bureaucrats, five centuries after dropping the ball, are still playing catch-up to Western entrepreneurialism and energy.


So which is it? Well, the answer to the old "is the glass half-full, or half-empty?" question is "it depends on whether you're drinking, or pouring."


The Chinese, clearly, are pouring. Are we?



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