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In China we trust. Or, what’s Chinese for ‘Sputnik’?

Amid WaMu’s collapse and Wall Street’s rejected bailout; amid the caricaturized U.S. presidential election; and amid the predictable Canadian federal election: a tiny but notable rocket was launched into the big belly of space this week, heading straight into the Earth’s orbit.

On Thursday, Sept. 25 at 9 p.m. Zhai Zhigang, Jing Haipeng, and Liu Boming waved to their fellow countrymen and countrywomen, boarded spacecraft Shenzhou 7 and blasted off into the night sky, with the words of President Hu Jintao echoing in their ears.

“You will definitely accomplish this glorious and sacred mission.

“The motherland and the people are looking forward to your triumphant return.”

Two days later, 343 kilometres above Earth, China became the third country in the world to successfully complete a spacewalk mission when taikonaut Zhai slipped out of the spaceship’s hatch, head first, into the dark expanse of space.

Millions of Chinese viewers crowded around large outdoor screens and watched the 42-year-old fighter pilot in his snazzy $4.4 million space suit as he conducted simple experiments and waved a red Chinese flag high above Earth’s crust.

And the Chinese public proudly applauded and cheered as Zhai announced, via radio: “I feel well. I am here greeting the Chinese people and people of the whole world.”

Zhai’s spacewalk was short. It only lasted 15 minutes. But it marked an important moment in human space exploration and in super power politics.

Yes, the planet may be fixated on the painful belly-up of the United States of America, but in the Eastern Hemisphere, the Chinese government is taking every opportunity to thrust itself into the limelight. To be global leaders. To be winners. To be most prosperous.

During a celebration party in Algiers, Algeria this week — where alcohol flowed like a guo hua waterfall — Chinese ambassador Liu Yuhe spoke highly of China’s maiden spacewalk, proclaiming: “This event is of great significance for China to enhance its national solidarity.”

The country’s track record over the last three years has been nothing short of impressive, considering it is also continually criticized for its pollution, health conditions and human rights situation. (Take the current milk crisis for example.)

They’ve solidified relationships with many resource-rich African countries (including Sudan, Zambia, Algeria, South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania, Guinea and Madagascar).

They’ve built the world’s largest hydropower project, ended their 40-year-old border dispute with Russia, and become the second largest economy in the world.

Most recently, the People’s Republic hosted a very successful Summer Olympics.

Now, the Chinese have their sights set on space, with specific goals of getting to the moon, setting up a permanent space station, and flying to Mars.

The Chinese Space Program has been around since 1949, when the People’s Republic of China was founded. Fifty years later, in 1999, China became the third country in the world — after the United States and the former Soviet Union — to send a space capsule into the Earth’s orbit with Shenzhou 1. The spacecraft circled the Earth 14 times before returning to the ground, landing in Inner Mongolia.

In 2003, with Shenzhou 5 China reached another landmark when it became the third country in the world to launch a man into space.

After mastering spacewalk technology this week, China plans to implant a fully functioning space laboratory module with two docking ports in the Earth’s orbit by 2020 and really get their space experiments rolling. This will be the Chinese version of the International Space Station.

Yup, gone are the days when “if you dig a large enough hole, you’ll reach China,” or when North American kids were told to “think of the starving children in China” as they ate their lunches. Gone are the days of the China Man ethnic slur: slits for eyes, ching chong language, coolie hat.

China is the new up-and-coming super power on this rapidly metamorphosing planet. You may not agree entirely with the ethics of some of their practices. You may not agree that the United States has stepped down from the world stage. But you have to agree, to some degree, that China has its act together.

Or, as Premier Wen Jiabao at the Beijing Aerospace Control Centre put it this week as he greeted the taikonauts on their safe arrival into China, the spacewalk mission was “a monumental achievement in the Socialist causes.”

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