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A giant leap for womankind in China – or is it?

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Faye Mooney
WVoN co-editor

This weekend, 33-year-old Liu Yang entered the record books as China sent her first female astronaut into space.

Yang and her two male colleagues blasted off from the Gobi desert on Saturday 16 June at 10.37 GMT. The mission represents an important stage in China’s long-term plans to build a space station.

Last week WVoN reported on the buzz of excitement and speculation in the Chinese media and internet following the news that a woman was to be sent into space, despite the fact that Chinese authorities appeared to be playing the decision down.

The significance of her participation appears not to have been lost on Yang, however.

Reportedly fond of making patriotic speeches, Yang told reporters before take-off that she was “grateful to the motherland and the people”.

“I feel honoured to fly into space on behalf of hundreds of millions of female Chinese citizens.

“Men and women have their own advantages and capabilities in carrying out space missions. They can complement each other and better complete their mission.”

It seems that the Chinese authorities have now moved to respond to the flurry of gender debate the announcement provoked.

Spokeswoman for the Space programme Wu Ping commented on the attributes a woman can bring to a Space mission.

“Generally speaking, female astronauts have better durability, psychological stability and ability to deal with loneliness.”

And in a nod to the symbolic importance of Yang’s inclusion, one of the country’s most senior female politicians, State Councillor Liu Yandong, read a message of congratulation from President Hu Jintao from the launch site.

Yet there has been some criticism of the apparent rush to send a female astronaut into space, with some analysts questioning the two years of training the two shortlisted women have received, compared to the standard 14 years for men.

Tony Quine, a blogger who closely follows the Chinese programme, said: “Perhaps there has simply been political pressure to send a woman into orbit? Women’s Groups in China have been lobbying for a woman in space since 2004.”

Meanwhile, another woman has made a big impression on Chinese social media for very different reasons.

The graphic picture posted online of 23-year-old Feng Jianwei and her dead seven-month old foetus, following a forced abortion, has caused a huge and angry reaction.

Forced abortions are rife in rural China as local governments come under huge pressure to meet birthrate quotas. The image has provoked more calls for an end to the one-child policy and its brutal enforcement.

The two stories illustrate a sad division in China and expose a complicated trajectory for its women.

The Tea Leaf Nation blog quoted a tweet from the Chinese blogosphere, which quite aptly sums up the irony of the stories of the two women:

“We can send a female taikonaut out into space, and we can also forcefully abort the foetus of a seven-months-pregnant woman from the countryside.

“The stark contrast between the fates of two women, 33-year-old Liu Yang and 22-year-old [sic] Feng Jianmei, is the clearest illustration of the torn state of this nation.

“Glory and dreams illuminate disgrace and despair, cutting-edge technology exists alongside the shameless trampling of the people. Rockets fly into the heavens while morals reach new lows, the nation rises while the people kneel in submission. This is how the best of times meets the worst of times.”

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