The China Analogy, Redux

Here is a post comparing the voyages of Zheng He to the modern US space program. Arthur Kantrowitz is the first that I’m aware of to make this comparison, back in the seventies.

I think that it’s an interesting analogy, but not in the way they intend, and I wrote about it a few years ago at Fox News:

…some have argued that in essentially turning our backs on the cosmos after the rapid success of Apollo, in favor of welfare programs and pork, our own politicians have given us a similar failure of vision.

But that draws the wrong conclusion. The fact was that Zheng He’s journeys were a failure. They sent out vast amounts of the nation’s treasure with which to impress the heathens and gain tribute and the appropriate respect (just as is the goal for the current Chinese space activities). But when trade occurred at all, the ships often came back with items that were perceived to be of less value than what had been sent out to the ports. The trade was not profitable — it was draining vital resources. The bureaucrats were right.

The Chinese suffered a failure of expansionary will 600 years ago because they were doing it for the wrong reasons. And I suspect that the current leadership is similar to Zheng He in their outlook. His missions were for national prestige — not the generation of wealth — as, apparently, are the current Chinese space plans.

As was America’s Apollo program.

Space will not be settled by governments, whether Chinese, Russian, or American. It will be settled by the people who want to go, and seek their own opportunities, and dreams. Governments can help, and if the Chinese government can navigate the difficulties I describe above, and actually eventually get to the Moon, that might be one way of helping, not just the Chinese, but as the article states, all who want to go. But I suspect that there will be private activities that beat them to it, and we cannot, and should not, count on Beijing.

We will know that things are moving forward seriously in space when, in addition to remote-sensing and communications satellites, there are activities going on in space, involving humans in space, that bring more value back than is put into them. Unfortunately, communist governments (which China’s remains, despite propaganda to the contrary) are not notable for their value-added activities, and I don’t think that the present Beijing regime is that far removed from its predecessors, either in the Ming Dynasty, or the Mao Dynasty.

But I hope they’ll prove me wrong.

I continue to so hope.

5 thoughts on “The China Analogy, Redux”

  1. Unless you’re using “communist” as shorthand for “the kind of government China has”, I have to disagree with the label – and yes, that means that I’m also disagreeing with the Chinese Communist Party, which runs this country.

    It’s certainly not a democracy either, but I don’t think it’s easily categorized. We do need some kind of shorthand for “the kind of government China has” because it’s a bit unwieldy, as is “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics”, and “communism” in its historic forms bears little resemblance to the odd combination of capitalism, bureaucratcy, and socialism that I see here.

    The capitalism is usually pretty ruthless, but trends towards crony capitalism. The bureaucracy runs many things, but most of their rules are ignored or circumvented. The socialism, well, I don’t know. The Party is in charge, but they’re pretty busy trying to keep people happy enough that they can avoid the overthrow of the Mao dynasty… mostly by letting them make and keep money.

    There is enthusiasm for space exploration among my primary school students – they know about “Ja Ja Rin” and Yang Li Wei (and Alan Shepard when I’m done with them). Some of them want to be astronauts; some think it’s a waste of money. I have some hope that they’ll manage to mount a credible space program.

  2. A quibble – governments can make space settlement happen – it’s called imperialism. It’s a lousy way to run a railroad (or a space program) but it can happen.

    It would be a real problem for the rest of the world if China went the imperialist route in space, so let’s hope they don’t.

  3. Doc, I’m curious and ignorant about internet access in China. Do the authorities have any problem with you posting from China? There isn’t any censorship of this blog? (Should Rand try harder to offend the Chinese government?) Doc, I don’t know what citizenship you hold, but do foreigners in China have the same access to the internet as Chinese citizens?

    I read this article: “’s_Republic_of_China”
    but it would be interesting to hear about the subject from your point of view, if you feel you can talk about the subject.

  4. Pardon the delay, my internet access was blocked. Just kidding; my computer picked the ideal time to crap out.

    I’m an American, but as far as I can tell, everyone has the same access. Some sites are blocked – the major one right now is youtube, which had some unpleasant videos of events in one of the autonomous regions.

    Censorship consists of blocking access. They’ll block things like blogspot from time to time, but to get censored, Rand, with his own domain name, would have to come to the attention of whoever does the blocking (probably several agencies), then either do some pretty serious anti-Chinese blogging, offend the wrong person, or post a bunch of pr0n. Basically, he’s not on their radar, and I don’t think he’s over the line, but it can be unpredictable.

    You can actually disagree with the government without being sent to the gulag. “You can complain, but you can’t insist” is the way I’ve heard it put. The problem is finding the right volume to complain – you want to be loud enough to be heard, but so loud you end up silenced.

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