Long March rocket’s re-entry, a warning from the heavens

(Originally published here on May 10 in South China Morning Post.)

Throughout the ages, astronomical phenomena have often been seen by humans as an omen. Chinese imperial rulers, in particular, developed the world’s most sophisticated and detailed observations of the night sky as a fundamental tool of governance.

Disturbances and aberrant phenomena in the firmament needed to be taken seriously as they might signal war, famine or pestilence. They might have also been seen as a message from the heavens that governing policies must change.

Keep this in mind as we ponder the remnants of China’s Long March 5B rocket, which streaked over the Mediterranean in the predawn hours of Sunday and splashed down around the Maldives.

As the space junk tumbled out of control in the days beforehand, keeping authorities guessing about where it would land, Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin dismissed concerns about it hitting a plane or village by saying the chances of that were “extremely low”.

Let us pause here to imagine how blistering his or Zhao Lijian’s criticism of the US government would have been had the debris belonged to Nasa. Then there would have been the hours of commentary in the official media about how such reckless behaviour should be seen as a symbol of Washington’s arrogance.

The Chinese government is proud of its recent achievements in space, as it should be. But perhaps it should keep that pride from morphing into a twisted sort of schadenfreude, as happened when a Communist Party organ juxtaposed a photo of the Long March rocket launch against funeral pyres in India on social media.

China’s officials cannot resist taking jabs at countries overwhelmed by a virus that might not have got so out of control had Beijing not muzzled the doctors who first detected what became the pandemic.

The behaviour shows how far China’s government has fallen from the enlightenment of emperors who looked to the skies to ensure that their policies aligned with the peace they saw there.

The disparaging “wolf warrior” diplomacy of President Xi Jinping’s government is starting to look more like the approach of former US president Donald Trump, who famously dismissed Haiti and some African nations as “sh**hole countries”.

That remark was one of many that most saw as self-destructive, one that would prompt the American political establishment, including moderate Republicans, to rein in Trump.

That never happened. Even after Trump incited a mob to attack the Capitol on January 6, a tragedy whose consequences most Americans have not yet absorbed, the divisive US leader has more political influence than ever.

US Republicans are hard at work enacting new voting restrictions, having thrown off their pro-establishment status as they purge their party of anyone questioning Trump’s evidence-free accusations about a stolen 2020 election, including conservatives such as Wyoming Senator Liz Cheney.

Arizona’s Republican-controlled Senate, now a pack of absurdist, anti-democratic shock troops, voted to undertake a vote recount managed by companies that include one whose CEO promoted Trump’s election fraud theories after the election.

Meanwhile, Republicans are either actively pushing or silently approving of election restrictions and ballot recounts to undermine Americans’ faith in the country’s most important civic exercise because they have given up trying to articulate a policy stance that resonates with a majority of the country.

Instead, they have offered up suspicion of their own country’s institutions, voter suppression, vaccine scepticism and opposition to basic health measures that might have lowered America’s coronavirus death toll.

In the absurdity of these new political paradigms in Beijing and Washington, the word hypocrisy no longer has any meaning. Power, instead of good public policy, is the North Star.

It is a shame that the Long March 5B was not more visible in the two capital cities as it re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere. Perhaps it might have been seen as a warning to policymakers in Beijing and America’s Republicans that their approaches need to change.

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