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More On China And Space

In a comment about my post on the Chinese space program, Mark Whittington writes:

The Chinese missed a big opportunity to became a world wide imperial power. They not only shut down Zheng's operation, but forbid all deepwater sailing, even those privately financed and run. It was a blunder of enormous consequence and I don't think that the current Chinese leadership will repeat it.

My point was not that they didn't miss an opportunity--they did. My point was the reason for that missed opportunity.

They didn't then, (and don't really now) understand the dynamism and strength of capitalism. Zheng He's missions were not for wealth creation, or even acquisition--they were for national prestige. If that's the reason that the modern dynasts go to the Moon, they will ultimately stumble as well (as we did, at least temporarily, over three decades ago).

Posted by Rand Simberg at May 21, 2002 07:04 AM
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I think it is inaccurate to argue that the Chinese do not understand capitalism. Look at Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore. Look at the various overseas Chinese enclaves scattered throughout Canada, the US, Australia, and elsewhere. Indeed, look at the private sector in the PRC (which is what has been driving the economic growth of the past two decades).

I would certainly agree that, among the top leadership, the objectives of capitalism are at odds w/ their interests of staying in power. But if the long history of China shows anything, it is that leaderships change. And the impending transition holds forth the possibility, not of significant political reform, but of further loosening of economic strangleholds.

That being said, Mr. Simberg, you are probably correct that the Chinese space program, thus far, is aimed at prestige (and some military and technological benefits), rather than wealth-generation. But I would argue that it is by no means a certainty that the Chinese will ignore the economic potentials of space.

Indeed, I'd argue that, much more than the US or Soviet/Russian space programs (which the Chinese space program actually does not resemble at all), the Chinese space program has been motivated much more by wealth-generation (or, more accurately, economic benefits to the PRC). Ths US and Soviet programs were motivated primarily by national security---the Chinese satellite constellations have been dominated by dual-use, w/ a heavy dose of economic pragmatism (relative to the Chinese economy, not necessarily to the program itself).

Just some thoughts.....

Posted by Dean at May 21, 2002 08:11 AM

I'm not saying that Chinese people are incapable of being capitalists--it's not a genetic thing. But the culture of China on the mainland tends to resist it, for long historical and geographical reasons. (See the book "Non-Zero" by Robert Wright for a full exposition on this subject).

I'm also not saying that the Chinese government are incapable of pursuing wealth creation in space. I'm just saying that, based on the article that described their activities, they don't seem to be doig that--they seem to be doing it primarily for prestige, and that fits in well with historical tendencies.

Posted by Rand Simberg at May 21, 2002 08:47 AM

Rand - I was addressing your suggestion that Zheng He was shut down because his voyages ultimately lost money. That's not entirely true, since the major reason seems to be a fear by the Mandarians of China being "contaminated" by foreign ideas.

But even given that supposition, one can point to plenty of European voyages of exploration which lost money, and even ended in disaster. But unlike the Chinese, the Europeans persisted and as a result they (and the United States, which is heir to European Civilization) took ownership of the future.

I think that the Chinese have taken note of that lesson of history and will proceed accordingly. The fact that their initial efforts are government sponsered is illrelevent. The Chinese (as another poster indicates) understand entrepeneurial capitalism and I strongly predict that will be an element in their space effort.

Posted by Mark R. Whittington at May 21, 2002 01:22 PM

I also need to add that Columbus and Lewis and Clark were both government sponsered and their expeditions led in the first case to the settlement of Latin America (and not entirely for purely commercial reason) and in the latter case to the settlement of the American West.

Posted by Mark R, Whittington at May 21, 2002 01:30 PM

Some Chinese understand entrepreneurial capitalism. It isn't clear that the Chinese government does. Or if it does that it doesn't ultimately fear it too much to really unleash it on the solar system.

Posted by Rand Simberg at May 21, 2002 01:55 PM

Maybe the phrase you should use instead of "unleash" is "exile."

Posted by Mark R. Whittington at May 21, 2002 03:03 PM

If they're not willing to let go of Taiwan, why would they be willing to relinquish a Chinese-dominated Moon? They're not real big on exile. Imprisonment is more their speed.

Posted by Rand Simberg at May 21, 2002 04:36 PM

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