For a week, China’s Long March 5B grabbed global attention, as space agencies and experts closely tracked its trajectory, speculating where debris would fall upon the rocket’s uncontrolled reentry. In China, however, the country’s space administration stayed silent for days amid criticism that allowing such a large rocket stage to free fall towards Earth was irresponsible and posed a safety risk — albeit a small one — to many countries. Finally, on Sunday morning Beijing time the China Manned Space Engineering Office broke its silence, confirming the remnants of the rocket had plunged into the Indian Ocean near the Maldives, after most of it had burned up in the atmosphere.
For many who have followed the rocket’s return, the news came as a big relief. In China, it was not only seen as a vindication of the rocket’s design, but also used by state media to argue that the intense global attention was merely a Western effort to discredit China’s space program and thwart its progress.
“Their hype and smears were in vain,” the Global Times, a state-run newspaper, said in an editorial Sunday, accusing US scientists and NASA of “acting against their conscience” and being “anti-intellectual.”
“These people are jealous of China’s rapid progress in space technology,” the paper said. “Some of (them) even try to use the noises they made to obstruct and interfere with China’s future intensive launches for the construction of its space station.” While Beijing has long accused Western countries and media of holding China to a different standard, Chinese officials also routinely have a nationalist response to any criticism, branding it an ill-intended attempt to “smear China.” Such fierce defensiveness is particularly evident when it comes to China’s space program, an important point of national pride for the Chinese public and a source of prestige for the ruling Communist Party.
China was a latecomer to space exploration, launching its first satellite only in 1970, 13 years after the Soviet Union and 12 years after the United States. But in recent decades, it has swiftly become a frontrunner in the space race — it was the first country to land on the far side of the moon in 2019, and successfully brought back lunar rocks last year. The defensiveness to criticism from the West, especially the United States, is partially born out of what Beijing perceives as Washington’s hostility to block its progress beyond Earth’s atmosphere.