BEIJING (AFP) - China said Thursday its rapidly growing space programme was the crowning achievement of the nations high-tech transformation and pledged to continue to develop it to close the gap with Western countries. I believe a space programme represents a countrys high technology and I believe China has already become a major country in high technology, Vice Minister of Science and Technology Li Xueyong told reporters. Our success shows not only the progress of the space programme but also our overall level of science and technology, he said at a press briefing. Li said China will invest 35 billion dollars in high-tech development this year, despite a budget squeeze due to an economic slowdown and massive government spending aimed at stimulating the economy. He provided no comparative figures, but data on his ministrys website showed the government spent 37 billion dollars in 2008, suggesting a slight decline this year. Still, Li noted that Chinas spending on science and technology has grown 40-fold since 1978, when the nation began to liberalise its formerly state-planned economy, ushering in three decades of dramatic growth. The rapid economic development has allowed China to pour money into developing its high-tech abilities, and the country has notched a number of signature achievements. China has carried out three manned space missions, including a spacewalk, and put a lunar orbiter in space. Li said the programme would be even further expanded in future. Compared to European countries and the United States there is still a large gap. That is why we must intensify our efforts in developing high-tech and related industries, he said. However, Li declined to provide specifics on how the funding would be allocated.