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Xiaoying Zhou

The Untold Price of China's Space Programs

The launch of Shenzhou 9 last month drew the world’s attention as China sent its first female taikonaut, Liu Yang, into space. While many focus on the contrast between Liu Yang and Feng Jianmei, there is another contrast between those in the sky and those below who face the falling debris. 

The Silent Majority

Chinese essayist Wang Xiaobo (王小波) famously called those who wouldn’t and couldn’t speak out for themselves “the silent majority.” It has since become a popular term in China, and a perfect term to describe Chinese peasants, too.

The Silent Majority, a collection of Wang Xiaobo's essays.

In an op-ed on the political opinion site guancha.cn entitled “Peasants Are So Poor, Why Do We Still Launch Shenzhou 9” (“农民那么穷,为什么要射神九”), Laojin (老金) described Chinese peasants’ reactions to the launch of Shenzhou 9. The results were ironic and saddening.

Laojin first described the “normative” reactions of his colleagues and many public intellectuals to big-ticket, government-sponsored events such as the launch of Shenzhou 9. “Peasants are so poor, why are we doing this?” They posed the same question when Shenzhou 7 was launched, when Shanghai hosted the World Expo, and when China’s high-speed rail was first under construction. The question has almost become a shtick. In each case, those posing the question like to think that they stand on a higher moral ground, and that their interlocutors cannot possibly say anything in defense of the government.

But Laojin told yet another story:

“A few years ago [a journalist from Xinhua] went to a village in Central China with an official from the central government. On his way the official didn’t look very happy, because he realized that all that he was seeing was ‘carefully arranged’ by the local authorities… As the car was driving on the road, the official saw that there were some peasants at work near a threshing ground and a few shabby barns. He suddenly demanded the car to stop and walked straight towards the peasants. The peasants saw the official, one they had always seen on TV. They were excited and gathered around applauding. There was sweat on the local officials’ foreheads… The central government official raised his voice and said, ‘The central government is looking into completely annuling the agricultural taxes, which should go into effect next year. Your burdens will be further lightened.’ He was expecting applause from the present peasants, but to everyone’s surprise, there was none. A few farmers responded with emotion, saying their life was all right, that there was nothing too terrible. But the country needed money to build aircraft carriers—surely the country should not cut its expenses in this area, for how could China do without aircraft carriers?!”

Laojin then laid out more examples of peasant endurance, each more surprising than the last. To be sure, Chinese peasants have benefited the least from the country’s economic development. But when their voices are heard, their endurance and good nature seem to induce them to think more for their country than about the lack of resources and care from the government.

Fate Falling from the Sky

While one could certainly find examples where peasants and the state have butted heads, what Laojin shows may very well prove to be the general case for Chinese peasants. After all, unlike GDP, the feeling of happiness is not quantifiable. Those with higher living standards surely seem to grumble more, often on behalf of their less fortunate peers.

A recent blog entry by Ms. Cui Weiping, professor at Beijing Film Academy, sharpened the picture. Entitled “Fate Falling from the Sky” (命运从天而降), the article introduces the second-most frequent final destination for China’s satellites after outer space: the town of Suining in Hunan province.

Roughly a thousand kilometers from China’s Xichang Satellite Launch Center, Suining has more than 350,000 residents, many of non-Han ethnicities. In 2008, when filmmaker Zhang Zanbo read that many of China’s satellites had fallen not into the desert or the seas, but instead into an area populated by peasants, he determined to go to Suining and find out more. It had been prohibited to write anything about the destinations for satellite remains until the government loosened the ban a bit in 2008. Zhang had his chance, and such was the origin of a documentary called “Falling from the Sky” (天降).

Zhang's movie was never shown in mainstream cinemas for the general public.

As evidenced by Zhang’s documentary, when China celebrated its many victories in space, down on the ground in Suining residents mourned for fields marred by deep craters, roofless houses, and lost loved ones. Soldiers–who would only show up when contacted by villagers–collected fallen satellite remains and offered meager compensation for those who lost crops or property. 

Most ironic, however, is the fact that most satellites sent into space from China’s Xichang Satellite Launch Center over the past two decades have been for business purposes, not space exploration. Even foreign satellites went into space on China’s rocket. Or they fell.

There was simply no telling if your field, your house, or your loved one would be the next target of gigantic flying metal parts. Many years ago, as villagers watched another shower of satellite remains falling from the sky, one villager’s sixteen-year-old daughter got hit and had her head sliced in half. Villagers were forbidden to report the death, and all that Chinese readers could read was how no casualties had ever been inflicted since Xichang Satellite Launch Center began its operations.

A surreal endurance

While fate falls from the sky for the villagers of Suining, wrath still does not seem to reside in its peasants’ hearts. As Zhang tried to show in his documentary, these peasants feel a sense of belonging in Suining, even though that well-being has long since been intruded upon.

“What is there to hide from? There is simply nowhere we can hide ourselves [from the randomly falling satellite remains]. We were born and raised here,” a villager confessed to Zhang.

Zhang called his documentary a kind of “magical realism.” It seems almost surreal that China would choose a populated area to receive the remains of its satellites. But perhaps even more surreal is the fact that those who suffer from such treatment accept their fate not only without resistance, but even with a certain fatalism.

Satellite remains in the fields of Suining

One might say that those shrouded in ignorance are more likely to accept their fate than those who know more. But even as the more knowledgeable city-dwellers hold dear the values they increasingly share with the West, it is China’s peasants who provide another — perhaps stronger, certainly more populous — narrative for the country, a narrative that may yet decide China’s future.

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Xiaoying Zhou

Xiaoying Zhou is a student at Yale University.
  • Godfrey789

    Meanwhile, poor Americans continue to slide further into hard times and debt at the same time the U.S. government spends billions and billions of dollars on foreign wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

    Those raining missiles in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan have certainly killed more innocent peasants than randomly falling satellite remains in China.

    Tragic, nonetheless.