China performed its crowning feat in a year of national drama towards the end of September, when an astronaut floated out of an airlock 341km (212 miles) above the earth.

The Shenzhou VII spacecraft which blasted off from Jiuquan in barren northwest China on 25 September, carried three men, including one picked to become the nation’s first spacewalker. The sole task of mission commander Zhai Zhigang was to retrieve a rack attached to the outside of the orbital module. He remained outside for about 13 minutes.

The craft’s journey, was China’s third manned spaceflight and comes five years after China first joined Russia and the United States in the elite club of states able to send humans into space. The second, two-manned mission was in 2005.

“A Chinese astronaut floated out of an airlock 341km (212 miles) above the earth.”

“For China this will be a milestone on the way to developing a space lab,” said Huang Hai of the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics. “But especially this year, it will also mean a lot beyond the technological breakthrough.” The space walk and other tests in the flight are steps in China’s long-term plan for an orbiting station and maybe one distant day a trip to the moon.

But following the Beijing Olympics and this year’s upsurge in ardent popular patriotism, the cramped capsule also carried an especially heavy symbolic payload for the ruling Communist Party.

“There is definitely a political angle to show that China is strong and has all the trappings of a power,” said Kevin Pollpeter, an expert on Chinese space strategy at the Defense Group Inc in Washington DC. “Human space flight and then a space station are seen as the indicators of a great power.”

Yet as a vehicle for the Party’s nation-building ambitions, China’s space programme carries the tensions and limits of those ambitions. Beijing says its space plans are purely peaceful. But some of its military experts, fearing US technological domination, warn military rivalry in space looms.

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And while admiring China’s achievements, experts say its space technology remains far from rivalling those of the United States. “China is still far behind the US and Russia,” said Jiao Weixin, a space scientist at Peking University. “It would be unrealistic to speak of catching up. We can only do our best to narrow the gap.”

Winning the world’s attention

Misson commander Zhigang, the 41-year-old air force pilot, is already a feted hero. His and the other candidate astronauts’ preparations have been painstakingly reported. Their journey has been televised to hundreds of millions, with just a brief time-delay in case an accident blighted the spectacle.

For China’s history-conscious leaders, this show is serious. “One successful [manned] launch can win the attention of the nation and even the whole world,” two People’s Liberation Army officers wrote in a 2008 study of China’s strategy in space. “Above all, it can unify the public mood and is an important political tool for raising morale.” That sentiment cuts particularly deep here.

“The next Shenzhou launch will unleash another wave of state-nurtured patriotic fervour.”

From the 19th century, Chinese thinkers blamed domination by Western powers and Japan on technological backwardness. After 1949, Communist leaders made mastering nature a defining test of strength, brandished in atomic arsenals, mega-dams and engineering marvels beyond the grasp of other developing nations.

The revolutionary founder Mao Zedong signed off on a proposal to develop manned space flight in July 1970, four months after the strife-ridden nation launched its first, primitive satellite, according to a semi-official history of China’s space programme.

With Deng Xiaoping’s pragmatic economic reforms from the late 1970s, reaching into space became more urgent for this country seeking respect as a modernising power. In 1979, Deng visited the Johnson Space Centre in Houston, Texas, buckling up in a space shuttle simulator and meeting the pioneer US astronaut John Glenn, according to the semi-official history of China’s space programme which was published in 2005. “You in America have many things worth our while studying,” was Deng’s typically laconic comment on NASA’s gadgets.

For Chinese leaders since, nearly all engineers, the manned space effort has offered a means of dramatically avenging a past of vulnerable backwardness, said Joan Johnson-Freese, an expert on the programme at the US Naval War College in Rhode Island. “I think the Chinese are trying to be viewed as Asia’s technology leader, where technology is both an indicator of power and a tool of persuasion to influence other countries,” she said.

From a first, unmanned flight in 1999, the Shenzhou programme has embodied that ambition. With a name meaning ‘sacred vessel’, the programme secretively runs through military and government agencies and its budget is murky. In 2003, officials said it had cost 18bn yuan ($2.6bn) up to then.

The Shenzhou VII launch is well timed to create a patriotic crescendo in a year when China’s growing national ambitions brought contention and glory. In the build-up to the Beijing Olympics, Chinese nationalism was inflamed by international protests over Tibet that upset the international leg of the Games torch relay.

“One successful manned launch can win the attention of the nation and even the whole world.”

The devastating 12 May earthquake in the south-west then galvanised an intensely patriotic nationwide relief effort. And then the Olympics in August brought China a winning haul of gold medals and another burst of patriotic pride.

To judge from internet chatter, the next Shenzhou launch will unleash another wave of state-nurtured patriotic fervour. “China in 2008, the Olympics China, strong China, beautiful Shenzhou VII fly into space,” wrote one internet user. “Earthquakes cannot crush the Chinese people,” wrote another. “Our dreams fly skyward with science and technology.”

Rivalry in space

Behind the spectacle, China’s space programme carries potential consequences that have generated anxiety in the United States and among other aspirating Asian space powers.

The government says the cost of shooting humans into space – officially, about 1bn yuan ($150m) each time so far – is a sliver of the bulging state budget. But the total cost of the programme is heavy even for increasingly wealthy China.

Chinese scientists persuaded leaders to back manned spaceflight by arguing the prestigious task would help state labs attract engineers otherwise heading into private business, said Pollpeter, the Washington-based analyst. Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics now has 23,000 students, including about one-third directly involved in aerospace, he noted in a recent study, calling the ranks of youthful engineers ‘a strategic advantage for China’.

“We’ve already been able to use the experience and technology accumulated from the Shenzhou project,” said Huang Hai, the professor at the university. “People have been moving out with new skills. So the practical benefits of manned flight are longer term, not instant pay-offs.”

Beijing has often said its technology is for peaceful ends. But especially after China showed its reach in space in 2007 by blasting apart one of its own aged satellites, Washington and Asian capitals have been wary of its military potential. “The more other countries like China develop space technology, the more threatened the US feels because of the dual-use issue,” said Johnson-Freese. “[It’s] a vicious cycle.”

“For China, this sucessful space walk will be a milestone on the way to developing a space lab.”

Chinese experts in turn say US domineering risks making space a zone of growing military rivalry and eventually competition over resources. “There has emerged a dangerous tendency for space competition to mutate into a space arms race,” a senior Beijing analyst wrote in the latest issue of the journal China International Studies. “An arms race in space is being unveiled, and it was provoked by the United States.”

But for now China is far behind the United States in the space race and that gap will remain for years to come, said several Chinese and US experts.

To propel a space station skywards, Beijing must develop a new generation of Long March rockets. Their appearance has been delayed, probably until mid next decade. And there are countless other gadgets and techniques to be mastered. “Comparing Chinese technology to that of the US is like comparing a Ford Fiesta and a Mercedes,” said Johnson-Freese. “Both run and do the job, but the quality and advancements are very different.”