"The space program is fine, but they should take care of us farmers first,'' said Li, 42, gazing into the sky above the Beijing vegetable market where she cycles every day with her husband and two children to sell leeks and other produce. "Life is really tough for us.''
China's Shenzhou-6 launch highlights the contradictions in a nation that is gaining economic, diplomatic and scientific clout while 200 million people of its people still live on less than $1 a day, according to World Bank 2004 estimates. It comes as the communist government also struggles to deal with a growing number of violent protests by its poorest citizens.
"China's space program represents its aspirations to become a superpower,'' said Laurence Brahm, a Beijing-based author and adviser to the Chinese government. "It's a symbol of nationalism, in a country that's facing a huge challenge to make the transition to a capitalist state.''
China in October 2003 became the third country after the U.S. and Russia to send a man into space, when astronaut Yang Liwei completed a 21-hour orbit. Shenzhou-6, which blasted off from the remote northwestern province of Gansu with two men aboard, is scheduled to spend five days aloft and will lay the ground for missions including a space laboratory and a moon landing.
China's government-controlled media yesterday gave saturation coverage to the launch. The English-language China Daily covered most of its front page with a photograph of astronauts Fei Junlong, 41, and Nie Haisheng, 40, walking to the launch pad, under the heading "A big step forward.''
Inside sections featured international reaction, biographies of the astronauts with pictures of their families, and primers on how they will eat, wash and work in space. The official Xinhua news agency even sent a report titled: "Deadly flatulence: how to excrete without risk in space?''
The space mission showcased China's technological prowess as finance ministers and from the U.S., Japan, Europe and elsewhere arrived for the Group of 20 nations meeting in Beijing this weekend. U.S. Treasury Secretary John Snow and other leaders are expected to press China to let its currency gain and boost domestic consumption to help reduce trade imbalances, a measure of China's increasing importance to the global economy.
Two decades of economic growth averaging 9.5 percent a year have made the Asian nation the world's biggest consumer of commodities such as steel, cement and grain and the second- largest user of oil. China, the world's seventh-largest economy, has become its biggest producer of computers, mobile phones, televisions and other manufactured goods.
Those achievements have come at the cost of environmental degradation, corruption and a widening gap between cities and the countryside, where about 800 million of the nation's 1.3 billion population live. Average urban disposable incomes were 3.2 times those in rural areas last year, a gap that's widened from 1.9 times in 1978, according to Xinhua.
The number of mass protests in China increased to more than 74,000 last year from 10,000 in 1994, Public Security Minister Zhou Yongkang said last month. Many disputes have been sparked by the seizure of peasants' land for urban development by corrupt local officials.
China is "confronted with increasingly acute potential social unrest caused by disparity in development and distribution, inequality, injustice, and corruption despite rapid economic progress,'' Xinhua said on Oct. 6, in an unusually frank assessment of the problems facing the country.
Eliminating social inequality will be a key priority for the Communist Party in the next five years, China's President Hu Jintao said at the annual meeting of Party leaders which ended on Tuesday, a day before the space launch.
"The government is under pressure to increase the quality of its growth,'' said Huang Yiping, China economist at Citigroup Inc. in Hong Kong. The government wants "growth that will be more environmentally friendly, and more fair in how wealth is distributed.''
Typical of this year's protests was a clash at Dingzhou village outside Beijing in July that left six farmers dead and 48 injured. The central government intervened, arresting more than 100 people, including local Communist Party Secretary He Fang and the Party Secretary of nearby Kaiyuan township Yang Jinkai.
"In China today, farmland can be seized any time by corrupt local Party officials for redevelopment,'' said Li Ping, Beijing chief representative for the Seattle-based Rural Development Institute, a non-government organization that advocates legal rights for the rural poor. "The key to resolving this crisis is to give land ownership rights back to farmers.''
Income disparities were further highlighted this week with the release of an annual list of China's richest people that showed the top 100 increased their wealth by more than 50 percent last year.
"Let's face it, a lot of rich people in China aren't there because of ability,'' said Howard Snyder, president of Beijing- based Great Leap Capital, a firm that advises foreign companies on buying distressed assets in China. "They got there because of connections. For instance, in real estate, many people got rich because they knew someone in the land bureau and got land cheap.''
Many of China's poor farmers may see their escape in moving to the nation's booming cities. The Li family rises at 5 a.m. every morning to cycle five miles into Beijing, not returning until 9 p.m. They make about 1,000 yuan ($123) a month.
"I want to go to Shenzhen or somewhere down south to work as a waitress or in a factory,'' said Li Na, 16, as she helped her mother sort lettuces. ``I don't want to do what my mom does. Life's too tough as a Chinese farmer.''-Bloomberg