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October 25, 2003

To 'Patriotic Fervor and National Cohesion'


by Sascha Matuszak

I posed this question to students and friends this week: Which is more important to you, China hosting the Olympics or shooting a man into space.

Most answers revolved around questions of economics, pride and China's increasing contact with and role within the international community. Virtually, all answers were given with the qualification: I have more important things to think about.

It came out even, with the Olympics running away with the "international cooperation," "involving all of the Chinese people" and "economic benefit" titles while Shenzhou 5 took "national pride" and "technological progress."

"1.3 Billion People Watched You Return Home"

read the headline of the Chengdu Evening Daily on the 17th. Giggles all around.

Nobody I asked admitted to watching much of anything concerning Shenzhou 5 except for the news briefs the day after and the commercials that now pop up inviting more "patriotic fervor and national cohesion."

Compared with the hand-wringing that proceeded the announcement that Beijing would indeed host the Olympics, Shenzhou 5 was a breeze, it blew through, made a little splash and is on its way to being forgotten.

It is nice however, to be one of three nations in the world to have launched a space shuttle and it does a lot for the self-esteem to hear things like:

"Our astronaut returned in much better condition than the American astronauts" as the Chengdu Economic Daily put it.

or

"We spent much less than $100 million and our shuttle is far superior to that of the Russians" as the Chengdu Evening claimed.

Chinese are much more sophisticated than the crude propaganda machine spun by Hu and Jiang and the layers upon layers of suits that make up the Chinese bureacracy.

Sophisticated enough to chuckle when reading lines such as these and others that spun out of the media blitz that followed the mission. Or busy and/or broke enough not to notice. As with most huge face projects that Beijing cooks up, the people express their pride in the progress of the nation, give praise to Old Deng and then resume the quest for fortune.

"China is just like that"

The word was passed down quickly from suit to suit and reporters were sent scurrying to hospitals to see if a Shenzhou had been born that day and out to my bar to ask if I would sport a "China Pride" headband for a photo. Everybody grinned sheepishly as I said "sorry."

I sat with a reporter here in Sichuan and he talked of his frustration with the memos that float down from Beijing everyday describing how certain things should be covered and with "suggestions" as to which phrases to use.

Members of the Chengdu Municipal Science and Technology Bureau were baffled when I mentioned the Galileo project that China and the EU are working on. While the papers went in-depth to cover Lt. Col. Yang Liwei's son and his thoughts and preparation for the mission, nary a word was wasted on this very important project. The Galileo project's goal is to compete with (and perhaps replace) the US-controlled GPS system. Shenzhou 5 is a high-profile trumpet out of Beijing heralding (yet again) China's resurgence. The Galileo project is the sword.

More than 4000 Sichuanese were involved in the Shenzhou 5 project (part of the Sichuan Aviation Indiustry's contribution) and many of them will be involved in the launches to come (two years or so as the crow flies) yet their colleagues back home are still in the dark about the space program.

An event that Hu and Jiang hope take the nation by storm is censored and coddled so much that people here find themsleves defending the propaganda more often than they are praising the event.

"China is just like that"

A New York Times article by Joseph Kahn on the Shenzhou 5 mission commented rather snidely on the technological prowess (or lack thereof) of the Chinese and their latent insecurity vis a vis the West. According to the leading papers, insecurity and the university diplomas of the leadership (engineering-heavy) tend to be the main factors driving the various projects and international events that China is involved in.

Both definitely have their roles to play, China today does resemble the USA of the past in many ways. But underneath all the crude propaganda and face building that goes on here, there be a billion+ a'toiling and – as the Southern Weekend pointed out in their in-depth articles on the 10,000 people that made it all happen – they are not in the slightest bit insecure.

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  • Sascha Matuszak is a freelance writer living in Chengdu.

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