China's Moon Landing Highlights Strategic Ambitions

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A TV grab shows China's first lunar rover Yutu, or Jade Rabbit, in a photo taken by the camera on the Chang'e-3 lander after touching down on the moon on Dec. 15, 2013.
A TV grab shows China's first lunar rover Yutu, or Jade Rabbit, in a photo taken by the camera on the Chang'e-3 lander after touching down on the moon on Dec. 15, 2013.

The landing of the the Chinese Yutu lunar rover on the surface of the moon at the weekend has thrown a spotlight on the government's vision of China's rise to superpower status, analysts said on Monday.

China on Sunday hailed its Chang'e-3 lunar probe mission "a complete success" after moon rover Yutu, or "Jade Rabbit," and a landing module took photos of each other from the moon's surface, following the first soft lunar landing by any country in 37 years.

"The [photos] showed that both the lander and moon rover functioned well and marked the completion of soft landing, in-situ, and patrol explorations," official media quoted lunar program spokesman Pei Zhaoyu as saying.

The ruling Chinese Communist Party's Central Committee, the State Council, and the Central Military Commission said the landing was a "milestone" for China and for the peaceful use of space.

Little civilian use

Wu Fei, professor in the school of Journalism and Communication at Jinan University in the southern city of Guangzhou, said China's space program is dominated by military and strategic concerns, however.

"What aspect of Chinese space technology has found a civilian use throughout the development of the space program since [the founding of the People's Republic of China in] 1949?" Wu said.

"Almost none. I have never heard of any," he said.

He said the vast investment required to sustain a space program has yielded little in the way of technological benefits for the general population.

"In the former Soviet Union, the lunar and space technology developed by civilians and the military weren't interchangeable," Wu said. "This problem exists in China, too."

Mission to explore

Yutu will survey the moon's geological structure and surface substances and look for natural resources for three months at a speed of 200 meters (about 660 feet) per hour, the official news agency Xinhua reported.

The landing module, which touched down in the Bay of Rainbows late on Saturday, will conduct in-situ exploration at the landing site over the course of a year, it said.

"The 140-kilogram [308-pound] rover separated from the lander and touched the lunar surface at 4:35 a.m. Sunday, several hours after Chang'e-3 lunar probe soft-landed on the moon's surface at 9:11 p.m. on Saturday," the agency said.

Strategic significance

Hu Xingdou, economics professor at the Beijing University of Science and Technology, said the lunar landings have strategic significance for Beijing.

"Probably, they will exploit some of the natural resources on the moon, but even more important is the military and strategic value," Hu said.

"This demonstrates the exploratory spirit of the Chinese people."

But he said the government had spent "too much" of its money and resources on the project at a time when many people are struggling to make ends meet in the face of rampant inflation and an economic slowdown.

"China invests very little in social welfare," Hu said. "Education, health and social security take up just a little over 20 percent of the budget."

"In developed countries, that proportion is 50, 60 percent or more."

PR boost

Hu said the government prefers to focus on large-scale, prestige projects such as the lunar landing because of the public relations boost from seeing the Chinese flag on the moon.

According to lunar program designer Wu Weiren, China will likely ship back the samples from the moon on an unmanned spacecraft in 2017, paving the way for a manned mission, Xinhua said.

China's accelerated space program comes as budget restraints and shifting priorities hold back U.S. manned space launches, and the Chang'e-3 probe blasted off just one day after India launched a mission to orbit Mars.

While Beijing insists its space program is for peaceful purposes, the U.S. Department of Defense has made clear it wants to prevent China's increasing space capabilities' giving it any strategic advantage.

The moon rover is named after the companion of moon goddess Chang'e.

In 2012, Beijing launched its fourth manned space mission since 2003, when Yang Liwei became the country's first person in orbit.

Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.





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