Beijing (AsiaNews) - China's Shenzhou (divine craft in Chinese) IX spacecraft, with a crew of two men and one woman, could prove a public relations disaster for the government's spin doctors who may hope to distract domestic and international opinion from the country's many social problems. In China itself, the authorities' fanatical concern for astronaut food clashes with their poor food safety record. In fact, many people have died in the past few years from food poisoning.
Shenzhou IX and its launch rocket are ready for tomorrow's liftoff at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre, weather permitting. The 13-day mission will mark a great leap forward for China's technology, Communist Party officials said, but ordinary Chinese seem to be concerned (and angry) about the quality of food on board the spacecraft.
In its coverage of the event, the mainland press has reported how closely the food for the mission has been monitored. With a price tag in the billions of yuan, having a taikonaut (a Mandarin word for astronaut) experience a bellyache during his or her spacewalk would not be good public relations.
Online, stories about astronaut food have also generated more hits and commentaries that those about China's first woman in space or that the mission will be the first one with a human crew to land in history.
In this case, pork on board the craft come from pigs fed with organically grown cereals that were closely monitored and quarantined before slaughter. Ordinary Chinese are none too pleased. The site that reported the story had millions of hits and more than 22,000 comments were posted on sina.com, one of largest web portals in Chinese.
"When will the government pay attention to the food on my dish?" asked one Sina user from Henan province. "If we can't feel safe about our food, how can we feel proud of our country?" lamented another user from Guangdong.
Such views are not far from the truth. Tainted pork, detergent-tainted milk powder, toxic toothpaste and shrimps à la glue have killed thousands of people because of poor food safety enforcement.
Meanwhile, people are still waiting to see who will be the first woman taikonaut. Two women are still in the run for China's first spacewoman: Major Liu Yang, a "hero pilot" who safely landed her passenger airliner after it was hit by a flock of birds, and Captain Wang Yaping, famous for leading rescue missions in the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake.
Both are 30, with a child, which guarantees optimal physical and mental conditions. However, they cannot have any scar, which can reopen in space and bleed, or strong body odours, which are intensified in the restricted conditions of space.
Whoever is chosen, Beijing noted, will have private sleeping quarters on board and will be able to bring "basic" sanitary products.