The launch has given the country a sense of unity and pride that could enhance the public stature of the new leaders. As soon as the Communist Party's third plenum meeting ended on Tuesday, President Hu Jintao and top party and military brass headed to the space mission control centre in Jiuquan. Jiuquan - which literally means 'fountain of wine' - was a military outpost on the historic Silk Road and the perfect backdrop for a leadership intent on recapturing former glory. Taking the centre stage at both the plenum and the launch, Mr Hu has dispelled doubts over whether he is in control while his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, still holds the position of chairman of the Central Military Commission. Mr Hu was accompanied to the launch site by two Politburo standing committee members, Huang Ju and Wu Guanzheng, and by Defence Minister Cao Gangchuan. When Mr Hu made his televised address yesterday and met the astronaut to wish him luck before he embarked on his mission, he praised Mr Jiang's efforts twice. But Mr Jiang is now, by and large, seen to be fading fast from the public stage. The space programme has caused political problems in the past. In March 1992, when Deng Xiaoping was trying to accelerate economic reforms, the Long March 2 rocket burst into flames on the launchpad. This setback called for a great deal of damage-control to separate the space programme from other developments on the agenda. The launch has undoubtedly diverted attention from the third plenum of the 16th Communist Party Congress, which skirted sensitive issues of political reforms and revealed no details of constitutional amendment. The ambitious plans adopted at the plenum of lifting more people out of poverty, narrowing the income gap have not yet been widely publicised. The costly space programme has been criticised for diverting the mainland's limited resources from helping the poor, but previous leaders from Mao Zedong to Deng Xiaoping to Mr Jiang have given it their unswerving support. And now the fourth generation of leaders under Mr Hu has shown they plan to continue that support. Like the leaders before them, Mr Hu will use the domestic pride and international prestige of a successful mission to justify the legitimacy of the Communist Party. The launch could also pay dividends for the leaders in terms of China's relations with the United States, said Shen Dingli, deputy director of the Institute of American Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai. 'The space programme could strengthen China's influence in resolving regional conflicts, including a future showdown over the Taiwan issue,' he said.