Joan Johnson-Freese has an excellent summary (reposted after the jump) of China's upcoming Shenzhou-9 and Shenzhou-10 missions, both of which are planned as manned dockings with the Tiangong-1 space module.
But more important is how these missions fit strategically in China's space program and what they mean in terms of the near and medium term future. Johnson-Freese is one of the leading American analysts of China's space program and a Professor of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Naval War College.
China is "normal", and will face future constraints
Johnson-Freese's analysis is similar to Roger Handberg and Li's in that she concludes that China's space program is "normal": it follows (and will continue to follow) the same development trajectory as in the U.S. or USSR/Russia. It is subject to the same laws of political and economic gravity that other countries face. China's human space program has an ambitious yet cautious schedule, and they are very likely to continue that incremental path. It's undeniable that China is advancing in terms of its space competence, and soon whatever limitations exist on its space-faring capabilities will be political, not technological, in nature. This is to say that - as in the American or Russian space programs, China's space ambitions will become limited by political will and/or fiscal resources.
Johnson-Freese says that "enthusiasm and public and political support [for space] is very high", but it's unclear if Chinese popular support for the space program is as robust as she thinks. I suspect that support is a mile wide but an inch deep, or at least this seems more likely to me given recent (unrelated) events that affect public perceptions of government - but no one really knows. This is also the sense I get in speaking to ordinary Chinese on my visits there - although I recognize that this is an unscientific, skewed sample. This factor will become more apparent if recent indications are correct that China's economic growth may be slowing a bit.
China also faces a serious demographic issue: it's getting old before it gets rich, which will also create fiscal constraints. [Thanks Bleddyn Bowen for reminding me of this.]
So to the extent that these factors are active, they would certainly force tough decisions on which development goals get prioritized. Given that possible social or political unrest is a major concern among China's leaders, lower economic growth would tend to moderate the Chinese leadership's enthusiasm for space vis a vis spending on other development priorities. Note that I am not suggesting that China's economic growth will reverse, just that it may slow from its previous torrid pace - which may be significant enough. And even if Chinese popular support for space is less strong than Johnson-Freese believes, it's still a very good bet that China will keep moving forward. Or rather, up.
China's Space Motivations
Second, the motivation for China's human spaceflight program - like the U.S. or USSR/Russia - is primarily as a display of technological prowess and projection of soft power. In that sense too, China's space program is "normal". It is commonly pointed out that China's human spaceflight program is run by the Chinese military. It is true that there are dual-use aspects to their space technologies, but that is both to be expected, and also increasingly less important militarily. After a country has mastered launch, trajectory, communication, rendezvous, etc. technologies, the potential military applications of advanced human space technologies are less important in terms of an actual possible space "battlefield". In other words, China has already mastered what matters in terms of developing advanced anti-satellite capability, surveillance, etc. The technologies it has yet to develop/deploy in a human space program such as advanced life support, long-duration missions, landing, etc. are not of much military value. And in any event, hopefully such military considerations will always be only theoretical.
The real value of China's space program for China is to convince other countries in the region that China is a dominant technological power. That's soft power - the ability to get what you want by convincing others that they want to follow or emulate you. And it's also "normal".
Johnson-Freese concludes that
Technically, the Chinese manned space program is currently about where the Gemini program was during the Apollo years in the US. The US went on to the moon. Enthusiasm for space exploration, as evidenced by consistent political support which then translates into required budget support, then waned. The US is now in a transition to move space exploration away from being totally a government initiative; a necessary but painful transition.
In China, momentum, enthusiasm and public and political support is very high, and can be as important as technology in terms of planning for the future. Space exploration has significant geopolitical implications; China's clear regional technical leadership is not lost on other countries. Whether China will set a course for the stars and press forward when it has all the technological capabilities to do so will be an important political decision.
Finally, a side note: It's expected that the launch of Shenzhou-9 will include the first female taikonaut.