"Gravity" has succeeded in achieving what State propaganda has struggled to do for years: igniting pride in China’s space programme.

In the early hours of last Monday (December 2), a Long March-3B carrier rocket blasted off from a remote corner of the southwestern Chinese desert, headed for the Moon. On board was the Jade Rabbit, a lunar rover that will, if everything goes to plan, land safely on the Moon and spend three months exploring its surface. The “Chang’e-3” mission is a special one for the ambitious Chinese space programme on many levels.

For one, if successful, it will carry out the first landing on the Moon since 1976. Since then, several countries, including China and India (through the Chandrayaan-1 probe), have sent probes that have impacted on the Moon’s surface after exploration – known as a “hard landing” – but as Chinese officials explained last week, carrying out a “soft landing” to enable exploring the surface is a far trickier proposition. The launch, needless to say, received prominent coverage in Chinese State media outlets, splashed across the front page of almost every newspaper here.

Good space program but bad subways

The last few years have been a heady time for the Chinese space programme. In June, China launched its fifth manned space flight carrying the country’s second female astronaut into space. Considering that China’s first manned flight was only a decade ago, that is a stunning feat. China’s space programme has, no doubt, become a source of pride for the ruling Communist Party, which has, in the past, framed achievements in space as both underlining its legitimacy and as a symbol of nationalist pride.

For instance, the Tiangong-1, a space laboratory module that China launched in 2011 – it will subsequently be expanded into a full-fledged space station by 2020 – was sent into space with great fanfare on the same weekend that China marked its National Day, while President Xi Jinping’s video conversations with astronauts was broadcast across every television channel. When Wang Yaping, China’s second female astronaut, “lectured” students carrying out a “space lesson” from Tiangong, more than 60 million school students watched from 80,000 middle schools, from Tianjin to Tibet.

The fanfare that surrounds China’s space launches – and the non-stop coverage from State media – has also, to be sure, attracted its fair share of criticism – and cynicism – especially from the increasingly vibrant Chinese blogosphere. When a subway accident in Shanghai left dozens injured days after the Tiangong launch, thousands of angry comments online hit out at the government for focusing more on pride projects. “Tiangong launched successfully, remarkable!”, wrote one blogger. “But why can’t you sort out the high-speed railway and subway trains?” he asked, also referring to a high-speed railway accident earlier that summer, that left 40 people killed in Wenzhou.

That vein of criticism is one I have often heard from my Chinese friends, who I find are usually more cynical, rather than congratulatory, about their country’s space achievements. “It’s all for propaganda!”, a friend of mine who works for a State media company said dismissively, when I asked him about the lunar launch.

The day after the launch of the lunar probe last week, I happened to be in a cinema hall in downtown Beijing, watching Alfonso Cuarón’s brilliant space drama, “Gravity” (subtitled in Chinese for the throngs who’ve flocked to see the film here these past few weeks). “Gravity” has taken the Chinese box office by storm: in the first two days following its November 19 release, the film raked in $ 9 million; on the first weekend, it made $ 35 million. China has become the film’s third biggest market, following the U.S. and France. (This was despite the Chinese film authorities ensuring that the film released the same time as the second “Hunger Games” installment – a practice now regularly followed to limit overseas imports’ fast-growing takeaways at the box office at the expense of local films).

The stunning visual effects are, no doubt, the prime reason behind the film’s success. In China, though, the film appears to have endeared itself to viewers here for another reason: its glowing depiction of China’s space programme. Without giving too much away for readers unfortunate enough to have not seen the film, Tiangong, the space laboratory module, and the Shenzhou spacecraft, play a prominent role.

A good gesture

While the film has attracted rave reviews for its attention to detail, it does, however, take a few liberties when it comes to Tiangong, showing a far more advanced and expanded version that looks almost like a full-fledged space station, rather than the cramped module that is currently in orbit. (Phil Plait at Slate has pointed out other inconsistencies in the science behind “Gravity”, for those interested. The idea that it would be so easy to float in space from one orbiting space station to another – which is, obviously, in orbit at a different degree – seemed far-fetched even to my unscientific brain).

Regardless of the questionable physics, the Chinese references won the biggest cheers in the cinema hall that I was at. The first mention of Tiangong brought gasps, as did the spacecraft’s Chinese-language warnings and the ping-pong ball seen drifting in the cabin. Three movie-goers I spoke to after the screening said they all felt “proud” after seeing their country’s space programme “in a Hollywood blockbuster”. That sentiment was evident widely in the responses to “Gravity” on Chinese blogs.

“After ‘Gravity’,” wrote Yuelangxing on the popular Twitter-like Sina Weibo microblog, “I feel I can relate more to China’s lunar exploration programme.” Another blogger, Yangqiao, wondered whether the reference was “a good gesture”, or, on the other hand, merely aimed at “winning over the Chinese audience”. Even if that is the case, the film has, perhaps, succeeded in achieving, in the matter of a fortnight, what years of State propaganda has struggled to engineer, with at best mixed results.