by Jessie Jin
Image: SpaceX / Unsplash
On April 29 of 2021, China launched the Long March 5B rocket in Hainan Island, China, leaving many people wary after the launch. The rocket, approximately 33 meters tall and 40,000 pounds, marked the initiation of China’s new space program. The rocket was intended to release Tianhe, the main module of China’s permanent space station, into orbit. However, it appeared to have insufficient fuel, as the rocket hurtled through space uncontrollably until gravity dragged it back into the Earth’s atmosphere. The China Manned Space Engineering Office released a statement saying that most of the debris burned up in the atmosphere, and it is unlikely to cause significant harm. Even with this statement, many people expressed anger and fear over the debris landing on earth and China’s failure to address the issue properly.
The remnants of the rocket ended up landing in the Indian Ocean on May 9th, 2021, on the west of the Maldives archipelago. The bulk components were destroyed prior to re-entry into the atmosphere, as China predicted. According to experts and past studies, uncontrolled rockets are statistically more likely to have ocean re-entries instead of land, as most of the Earth’s surface is covered by water. Due to the land-water ratio, the odds of populated areas being hit was low, and the likelihood of severe injuries were even lower.
Ever since large chunks of the NASA space station Skylab fell from orbit and landed in Australia in July 1979, countries have increased their attention in avoiding uncontrolled re-entries through spacecraft design. NASA released a statement on their website heavily criticizing China for their failure to send rockets responsibly on the day the rocket fell into the Indian Ocean. “Spacefaring nations must minimize the risks to people and property on Earth of re-entries of space objects and maximize transparency regarding those operations,” said NASA Administrator Sen. Bill Nelson, “China is failing to meet responsible standards regarding their space debris.”
The Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying rejected his remarks, who claimed that Western nations have always had double standards when dealing with China. “China has been closely tracking its trajectory and issued statements on the re-entry situation in advance,” Hua said. “There has been no report of harm on the ground. China also shares the results of re-entry predictions through international cooperation mechanisms.” She additionally pointed out that Beijing was being treated unfairly. “American media used romantic rhetoric like ‘shooting stars lighting up the night sky’” she said. “But when it comes to the Chinese side, it’s a completely different approach.” This refers to the media coverage of the failed launches of the Falcon 9 rockets. In March 2021, debris from a Falcon 9 rocket launched by SpaceX fell in Washington and the Oregon coast. NASA has not released a statement about this, and there has been significantly less mainstream media coverage about this event. Some smaller city news have covered this as a “spectacular” or “fantastic” lightshow. Hua claimed that the rocket mission strictly adhered to international law and Beijing was willing to strengthen cooperation with other nations on outer space matters, but will refuse double standards over this issue.
Though the main tensions arising from this issue are the result of China’s failure to deal with their rocket launch responsibly, the impact of this issue on political relations can further tensions between China and the United States. Hua’s statement of indignance mainly refers to the difference of reaction when the US media was covering American and Chinese events of similar magnitude. The problem of mainstream Western media sustaining an anti-China tone in news coverage is not new. This can be seen in the case of the coronavirus pandemic, where Western media’s tone towards China’s policies has barely changed, even after they succeeded in suppressing a wave of the coronavirus.
However, the weight of Western media presses is decreasing on China’s side. In recent years, many major social media platforms such as Instagram and Twitter have called out the obvious bias in mainstream media, which is receiving more attention from citizens of Western liberal democracies. Moreover, increasing censorship of Western media means that most Chinese citizens cannot see what is written about China in Western countries. The Chinese government’s statements about the subjectivity and even absurdity of Western, particularly US media, when reporting Chinese issues have shaped a nation of citizens who have no trust in any Western media. In China’s perspective, the reporting of this event that are “unfair” further proves their point of Western media being biased, brainwashed, and untrustworthy. Even though this event is relatively small and media discussions have settled down in a short amount of time after the rocket debris landed, it could be a propellant to the growing tensions between China and the United States.