Space Programme

“He’s a god”

Elon Musk attracts admirers on China’s web

“He’s a god”

Likes private space: Musk

“Dragon Capsule completes Historic Dock with International Space Station.”

One can’t help thinking that headline is the work of a futurist predicting China’s forthcoming domination of space.

A Dragon Capsule does sound quintessentially Chinese. And China has poured billions of dollars into space exploration in the last decade, since becoming the third nation to put a man into space in 2003.

But as many readers will already know the Dragon Capsule is not Chinese, nor is the headline a futurist one.

The Dragon and the rocket that put it into orbit – the Falcon 9 – were the creations of an American company, SpaceX. It docked successfully with the International Space Station (ISS) last week, making history as the first private sector firm to achieve the feat.

The world’s media widely covered the event. But Chinese newspapers and TV bulletins gave it short shrift.

One possibility is that China did not want to draw attention to the fact that it is barred from sending a crew to the ISS. That’s because of fears that China might steal technology for its own space programme, according to the New York Times.

Presumably the taikonauts would have arrived at the ISS with a lot of empty suitcases?

Another reason for the media block on SpaceX’s achievement is its small budget. It has invested $500 million thus far, much less than the cost of China’s national space programme, which has earned some criticism at home.

Most likely, the newspapers were under orders not to trumpet a foreign achievement. After all, there has been quite a bit of anti-foreign sentiment around lately (see WiC151).

Of course, that didn’t mean that netizens were going to refrain from discussing SpaceX’s success. Many chose to focus on 40 year-old Elon Musk, a South African by birth, who is behind the project.

As one netizen said of Musk: “The only thing I know for sure is that China could not produce a godlike person like him.”

In another comment, a weibo user wrote: “Maybe 80 out of 100 Americans are not as smart as Chinese, but the other 20 are definitely on the tip of the pyramid.”

These types of questions have been asked before. Others compared Musk to Apple founder Steve Jobs (see WiC120), whose death last year led many Chinese to ask why their own country was yet to produce someone like him.

Then and now, netizens blame the education system, and its emphasis on rote learning and conforming to norms.

“The biggest difference between the US and China is this: in China those who dream are seen as crazy, or failures, or they are forced to assimilate. But America is a country run by the crazy ones, and they are encouraged to be so,” weibo user AuteXL wrote.

Others pointed the finger at investment rules that limit private citizens from putting money into areas deemed to be strategically important, preventing the set-up of companies in these spheres.

Other weibo users highlighted that China’s lax attitude to intellectual property means few private companies can afford to follow in SpaceX’s footsteps.

“The copyright issue in China has greatly damaged the innovation environment,” one warned.

A few others took a different view, seeing US governmental failure behind Musk’s success.

“An idol??? The US government could not support NASA, so it sold its technical personnel to a private company. Basically, this company bought a part of NASA… Musk provided the money, NASA provided the technology,” Zuodaoshushi wrote.

Plenty of female netizens seem to have been a lot less concerned by the innovation issue and more interested in finding out if Musk was single or not.

He is – just – after recently being divorced by his second wife.

Seems even billionaire inventors can’t have it all.

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