Some people believe that China is really serious about human spaceflight. Really serious, as in, intends to establish a permanent human present on the Moon in the near future. At least one Japanese politician thinks it could happen within four years.
To be honest, it doesn’t really matter exactly when it happens; if China decides to put its weight behind a human space program, then there’s really no reason why it couldn’t loft up a space station and put a man on the Moon without a vast amount of trouble – which I expect they will do in due course. However, I don’t think that they’re doing this mainly for prestige; China has quite rightly realised that the US is squandering its lead in human spaceflight and believes that this is an area where they have a real chance of leapfrogging them (as opposed to, say, Earth-based military).
I don’t really know enough about China to say whether this strategy will work. It really depends on whether they have the will and the means to employ next-generation propulsion technologies; not just nuclear propulsion, but the variety of plasma and solar-based propulsion ideas out there. Using the technology they’re employing in their Shenzhou craft, which is probably about as good as that used in the Space Shuttle, they could reach parity with the US fairly soon, and even overtake them. But that lead would only last as long as the US ignored all the research and scientists itching to work on new propulsion.
So: if the Chinese really know what they’re doing, they’re working on a nuclear engine right now. Nuclear propulsion is probably the easiest next-gen propulsion technology to use in practice at the moment, although ‘easiest’ is a relative term. If they’re really on the ball, they’ll be seriously thinking about constructing an orbital tower.
In any case, I think space advocates are in for an exciting couple of decades now that China, Japan and India are all raring to go. Of course, you can’t forget the array of increasingly proficient private space enthusiasts in the US, who actually have some serious money and talent behind them now. The only group missing from the party is NASA…