Alleged attack on prominent scientists casts shadow on China’s space walk triumph

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As China celebrated the success of its first spacewalk outside the new Tiangong space station on Sunday, the country’s main aerospace company was drawing attention online for a very different reason.

The state-owned China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) has faced a backlash after news emerged that a top executive at its subsidiary had allegedly brutally attacked two prominent space scientists — including an 85-year-old woman.

The alleged assault, which took place in early June, was brought to wider public attention on Saturday by a report from the state-run magazine China News Weekly. Chinese leaders have repeatedly stressed the importance of scientific and technological innovation, seeing it as a “main battleground” for competition with the West. Chinese President Xi Jinping himself has hailed the country’s top scientists as “the national treasure, the pride of the people and the glory of the nation.”

But the jarring fact that Chinese scientists can still be trampled — in this case seemingly quite literally — by an unscrupulous Communist Party official who apparently went unpunished for weeks has sparked a mixture of anger, disappointment and shame.

According to the state media report, Zhang Tao, the party secretary and chairman of China Aerospace Investment Holdings, an investment arm of CASC, attacked the two scientists after they refused his request to be recommended for membership of the International Academy of Astronautics, a Stockholm-based non-governmental organization.

Wu Meirong, 85, suffered a fractured spine, while 55-year-old Wang Jinnian had several broken ribs and soft tissue injuries all over his body. Both remained in hospital a month after the attack, while Zhang had been “going to work as usual,” according to the report.

Repeated calls to China Aerospace Investment Holdings went unanswered on Monday morning.

On Chinese social media, many questioned why the incident had been kept from the public for weeks, and why Zhang appeared to have faced little consequences for his alleged violent tantrum.

On Weibo, China’s heavily-censored version of Twitter, users flooded CASC’s official account with angry comments demanding answers for the alleged attack. A related hashtag racked up more than 130 million views.

Amid mounting pressure, CASC finally issued a brief statement late on Sunday afternoon, acknowledging that Zhang had conducted the beating “after consuming alcohol” and announcing his suspension. It did not say what led to the alleged attack or offer other details, only that the company had sent a team to investigate the incident and vowed to “deal with it seriously based on the results.”

The statement has failed to allay public anger. Underneath the post, top comments questioning why CASC only decided to suspend Zhang a month after the incident — and only after public outrage — received tens of thousands of “likes.”

The weeks-long silence surrounding the incident is likely due to the tightened censorship ahead of the Communist Party’s centenary on July 1.

A week after the alleged attack, China successfully sent three astronauts to its under-construction space station, a milestone proudly celebrated by state media and millions of people in China.

Under Xi, the party has unleashed a sweeping campaign to tighten discipline, punishing millions of officials for corruption and misconduct. But Zhang’s alleged blatant attack on the scientists exposed an uncomfortable fact for the party that in reality, some officials still feel entitled to wield their power as they wish, treating others with little dignity or respect — and worse still, there’s no real means of stopping them.

Chinese scientists and intellectuals have had a fraught history with the Communist Party. In 1957, the Anti-Rightist Campaign launched by Chairman Mao Zedong led to the political persecution of hundreds of thousands of intellectuals. Less than a decade later, Chinese writers, academics and scientists were again targeted in the Cultural Revolution, with many subjected to public humiliation and violent attacks by the Red Guards.

Even scientists leading the country’s nascent space program were not spared in the political turmoil. Yao Tongbin, a prominent missile expert, was beaten to death by a mob outside his home. Zhao Jiuzhang, a chief designer of China’s first satellite, was driven to suicide.

But China has come a long way from the lawlessness of the Cultural Revolution and the unending ideological and political struggles of the Mao era. And the alleged beating of the two scientists is supposedly against everything Xi claims his new China stands for.

As one comment on Weibo puts it: “The Zhang Tao incident has revealed a fact: rule of law is much more difficult to achieve than sending a spaceship into the sky.”

Meanwhile in Asia

  • A Philippine Air Force plane crashed on Sunday in the southern Philippines, killing at least 50 people.
  • Further north in the Philippines, authorities are monitoring activity at the Taal volcano after low-level eruptions last week, which prompted thousands to evacuate.
  • At least three are dead and dozens more missing in Japan after a massive mudslide swept across the seaside city of Atami, southwest of Tokyo, on Saturday.
  • Indonesia’s Bali and Java islands entered a strict lockdown on Saturday as the country battles a severe wave of Covid-19, with more than 20,000 cases a day.

Photo of the Day

One step closer: Ou Yushan of the Chinese women’s gymnastics team on the balance beam, during Tokyo Olympics trials in Beijing. The team announced its final lineup on Saturday, with the goal to make a comeback after “they endured a history-making zero-gold embarrassment in Rio 2016,” according to state-run news agency Xinhua.

Hours after banning Didi, China launches cybersecurity probes into three other tech giants

China is widening its crackdown on the country’s ride-hailing giants, citing national data security concerns.

On Monday, the country’s internet watchdog announced a probe into truck-hailing platforms Yunmanman, Huochebang — known as “Uber for trucks” — and job listing site Boss Zhipin, and suspended new user registration for the three apps during the investigation.

In a statement, the Cybersecurity Review Office said this has been done to “prevent national data security risks, maintain national security, and protect the public interest.”

The announcement comes one day after the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) banned Didi, the country’s largest ride-hailing service, from app stores after saying it posed a cybersecurity risk for customers.

“Didi Chuxing app is found to have severely violated the laws by illegally collecting and using personal information,” the CAC said on Sunday. It called on Didi to fix the issue with its app to comply with the country’s laws and to ensure its customers’ safety.

Didi, which has 377 million active users in China alone, said in a statement that it is complying with China’s demands, pulling the app from stores as it makes changes to satisfy regulators. The company said customers and drivers who have already downloaded the app won’t be affected.

The ban on Didi comes less than a week after the ride-hailing company went public on the New York Stock Exchange in the biggest US share offering by a Chinese company since Alibaba debuted in 2014.

According to a note by analysts at Shenzhen-based Ping An Securities, Didi is probably being investigated over its purchase of certain products and services from other suppliers, which Chinese regulators think can threaten national data security.

“Didi will inevitably have to check its core network equipment, high-performance computers and servers, large-capacity storage equipment, large databases and application software, network security equipment, and cloud computing services, sort them out and make necessary rectifications to meet regulatory requirements,” the note said on Monday.

— By Laura He