Post-Olympics, the Sky's the Limit for China

When the Olympic flame extinguished on Aug. 24, it ended a phase of modern Chinese history that began more than 15 years earlier, when Beijing first bid to host the 2000 Olympics. But as the games passed into history, a nagging question emerged: What's next for China?

That answer may have come on Sept. 25, when the Shenzhou-7 rocket carried three taikonauts (China's word for astronauts, from "tai kong," the Mandarin Chinese word for "space") into space. Two days later, Zhai made China's first space walk.

Up to and including the Olympics, China had continually set its sights on large-scale events, to demonstrate its ascendancy to both itself and the rest of the world. Beginning with the 1990 Asian Games, with the memories of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown fresh in people's minds, successive milestones including the Hong Kong handover in 1997 and the 50th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic in 1999 kept the country focused and looking forward.

China's space program is a different kettle of fish. Although the Olympics were still ultimately a spectator sport for the vast majority of Chinese, millions of citizens attended events in seven host cities and more than 1 million people volunteered. While the space program also involves a large number of scientists, engineers and numerous other workers to make it happen, it is shrouded entirely in secrecy.

NASA (National Aerospace and Space Administration) created the original geek chic in the 1950s and 1960s, not only with astronauts like John Glenn or Neil Armstrong, but with the white-shirted, pocket-protected flight engineers who manned control centers in Houston and later Florida.

Although China's space missions (there have only been two so far) have inspired great patriotic fervor, it has not generated the same thirst for science and technology that the early NASA space shots did in the U.S.

In some ways, China doesn't need its space program to create that kind of boost. China already leads the world in numerous technology market sectors, including as an Internet market and mobile phone market. It's also Asia's largest producer and consumer of computers.

It may be that the taikonauts came too late for a technologically minded generation. China's entrance into the space race comes almost half a century after Russia and the United States. However, China got in on the ground floor of the Internet revolution and is riding that elevator higher and higher, beyond where other nations can go.

By contrast, the people who have shaken the world are more likely to be technology entrepreneurs. Their story is much more traditionally Chinese: Emerging from humble means, they studied hard and used their educational opportunities wisely, often parlaying them first into overseas study and then into lucrative business opportunities.

While Yang Liwei will always be remembered as the first Chinese in space, and another name will eventually be immortalized as the first Chinese on the moon, the role models for China's youth are the founders of companies such as Alibaba, Baidu and Tencent. For both future taikonauts and technology entrepreneurs, in China it seems that only the sky is the limit.

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