Last month, a company called Mars One began accepting public applications for a rather extraordinary mission: establishing a permanent human settlement on Mars. Since then, more than 78,000 people have signed up for a chance to win a one-way ticket to the Red Planet, where their new life will (of course) be documented in a reality TV show.
As it turns out, a lot of the applicants -- more than any other country besides the United States -- come from China. Much of the interest seems to spring from a one-minute video made by one Ma Qiang, a 40-year old Sichuanese man profiled at length in the South China Morning Post. The video, which features Ma discussing his qualifications for the mission (in Mandarin), has attracted more than 34,000 views.
At a glance, this is little more than a quirky tale of an opportunistic man taking advantage of the adventure -- literally -- of a lifetime. China's mainstream media, however, was not amused. In the past four days, state-run organs such as Xinhua and China Central Television (CCTV) have launched a torrent of negative publicity about Mars One, claiming that the mission is a hoax and an easy way to scam people into coughing up a non-refundable $75 application fee. The media has also dismissed Mars One's executive, the wonderfully named Bas Lansdorp, as a small-time businessman who couldn't possibly pull off such an ambitious scheme. Mars One has denied the allegations, but the media's skepticism is apparently working: the pace of applications from China has slowed.
For a country once so concerned with overpopulation that they initiated a one-child policy, it's odd that China would mind that a few thousand of its billion-plus population wishes to decamp to Mars. What worries Beijing is this: the sense that a growing number of people in China want to leave. In recent years an increasing number of China's wealthy have emigrated, usually to developed countries like the United States and Australia, and much of China's elite already educates their children abroad. But the perception of a malaise -- caused by concerns over environmental issues and food safety -- is real. In an editorial defending Mars One, The China Business Weekly dryly noted that Chinese applicants were mostly motivated by a desire to escape China, and Ma himself reflected this sentiment by saying that "we live in a country without dreams."
That part surely isn't true -- at least not in a country where millions each year move to the cities in search of opportunity, and where the economy continues to grow at an fast pace. For all of China's problems, you can't accuse it of being stagnant. But the state-run media' criticism of the Mars One mission does reflect a sensitivity that Xi Jinping's much-vaunted "China Dream" may require.
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Matt Schiavenza is the senior content manager at the Asia Society and a former contributing writer for The Atlantic.