Orchestrated jubilation on China's space frontier
Waving banners and banging drums, thousands of primary school children on Wednesday paraded through the northwest Chinese city of Jiuquan, celebrating the nation’s second manned foray into space.
“Shenzhou VI successfully launched,” they chanted in not entirely perfect unison, one hour after China’s most ambitious space mission yet blasted off from a secretive launch site in the desert three hours’ drive away.
“Learn from the space heroes, show respect for the space heroes,” said a large red banner carried by a group of students fighting against chilly winds.
While Jiuquan’s young seemed commandeered to express their patriotism as loudly as possible, private reactions among the grown-ups ranged from pride to indifference and ignorance.
“I’m not sure what that’s all about,” said a young man with brown teeth, watching the children parade through the city centre, escorted by police officers. “Are they celebrating some kind of festival?”
With a population of about 300 000, Jiuquan is on China’s old frontier with Muslim-dominated Central Asia, and some residents seemed excited once again to find themselves on a frontier—this time with space.
“Shenzhou VI makes us feel very proud,” said Zheng Huiqing, a woman strolling the street with two friends.
Jiuquan has developed rapidly in recent years, helped partly by tourism, but it still carries a decidedly provincial air, and is years behind a developed metropolis like Shanghai or Beijing.
Western fastfood chains—a reliable measure of development in modern China—have not arrived here yet, and neither, in any major way, has the internet.
Nowhere in the city is it clear that just 300km away, at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre, some of China’s most advanced technology is being developed, tested and put into use.
“It’s amazing that China has been able to reach this kind of technological level,” said Yang Ying, a hairdresser, rushing to work.
As befits a wild-west city, some adopted a more mercenary approach towards the space launch.
One of them was Liu Fuquan, a taxi driver who is jubilant over all the space enthusiasts who have been disembarking from the Jiuquan train station in recent days.
“Personally, I don’t understand what all the fuss is about,” he said. “But it sure helps business.”
The Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre traces its origins back to the dark days of the Cold War, when it was the site of Chinese research into ballistic missile technology.
In the past decade, brand new facilities have been built at the centre to equip it as the nodal point of China’s manned space programme.
Nevertheless, local businesses in Jiuquan did not seem keen to bask in the reflected glory of the Shenzhou launches and have done surprisingly little to exploit them for commercial purposes.
One exception was a red banner, advertising “Shenzhou Rice Wine” and hastily raised in the city center just after Wednesday’s launch.
“We serve the men and women who serve the motherland’s space endeavor,” it said.