Staged epic and false hopes
China's first manned space flight rallied the country, boosting national pride and China's international prestige. It completely overshadowed another important event - the Third Plenum of the 16th party congress, which sought to nudge the economy towards a more capitalist model.
If China had a free press, journalists would have been burning the midnight oil to satisfy readers' curiosity about the events that could affect their morale and livelihood. But in the interests of fostering unity and stability in the run-up to an important political event, the press is muzzled.
National pride is a volatile sentiment, which could get out of control. The authorities wanted to leave nothing to chance, which prompted the decision to scrap CCTV's plan for a live broadcast of the space launch. Apparently, leaders were still haunted by memories of the failed satellite launch in 1992.
The People's Daily, Xinhua and CCTV issued dry, matter-of-fact reports about preparations for the launch. But the public's response was overwhelming. Those who were well-informed about the space programme shared their knowledge in internet chat rooms. Reports by the foreign press were widely cited. Although barred from direct coverage, mass-circulation newspapers tried to meet popular demand by getting space-related stories into print.
An editor of one Beijing paper said the performance of the press in covering the space launch proved that the party's publicity department was losing its effectiveness in setting and enforcing parameters.
Blanket coverage began at blastoff and rose to a crescendo on the triumphant return of Yang Liwei from outer space. But celebrations were still carefully stage-managed for the benefit of the television cameras. In Beijing, fresh-faced college students were bussed in to a heavily guarded Millennium Monument to salute the victory.
Now, following the mission's success, the challenge is to face the pressing economic, social and political issues that the Third Plenum sought to address. The public had been promised a 'breakthrough' in all crucial areas. But can the leaders deliver? President Hu Jintao's working report to the Central Committee suggested that the new leaders were keen to bring in an accountability system. But as party veterans pointed out, submitting a report was hardly a sign of progress, as the party chief has done the same at each previous party congress.
Hopes were raised regarding a breakthrough in political reform when Mr Hu, during a study session on the eve of the plenum, called for greater democracy. In contrast, clearing the bottlenecks in economic reform has become something of a mantra in discussions.
Some observers believe that the 'breakthroughs' could basically entail undoing the work of the previous government. The 13-year rule of Jiang Zemin was a long period of stagnation in political reform. There were well-founded hopes that the new leaders would change things when they took the reins.
But why shouldn't any breakthrough begin with a bit more transparency?
The Politburo, announcing the agenda for the plenum on August 11, called for 'general discussion' in preparation for the annual meeting of the Central Committee. However, media reports on political reforms and altering the constitution were declared off-limits. Added to that, discussions on economic reforms did not go beyond what was in the report to the 16th party congress.
On the day members of the Central Committee met in Beijing, the top news on the Xinhua website was the cold front sweeping northern China.
There followed a brief item on the opening of the plenum. This paltry report apparently qualified as a breakthrough, according to Beijing journalists, because the Central Committee's annual meeting used to be kept completely under wraps until a communique was issued at the end.
If it was not possible to censor news of China's first manned space flight, raising false expectations on other matters is almost certain to backfire.
Nailene Chou Wiest is a Post correspondent based in Beijing