An alleged attack on two eminent scientists by a Chinese aerospace executive and Communist party official after he had been drinking has sparked a wave of public anger and threatens to embarrass Beijing as it seeks to build an internationally respected space programme.

Police detained Zhang Tao, chair and party secretary at China Aerospace Investment Holdings, for his alleged attacks on Wu Meirong and Wang Jinnian last month, the state-run Xinhua news agency reported on Tuesday.

Wang and Wu had refused to recommend Zhang for membership of the International Academy of Astronautics, a Stockholm-based group that recognises distinguished scientists, according to the state-backed China News Weekly.

Both Wu, 85, an important figure in China’s civilian satellite programme, and Wang, 55, an expert in hyperspectral remote sensing used to improve satellite images, are members.

Beijing police described Zhang quarrelling with the two at a dinner and then later cornering Wang in a lift and attacking him with kicks and punches. Wu was allegedly knocked down twice while she tried to defend her colleague.

News of the incident sparked widespread condemnation on Chinese social media, with related tags on microblog Weibo being viewed hundreds of millions of times before censors stepped in to damp down discussion.

A statement over the weekend from China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, the state-run parent of Zhang’s company and one of China’s most important space flight companies, did little to calm tempers after it acknowledged that Zhang had been drinking ahead of the alleged incident.

China’s rapid progress catching up with the US in space has become an important source of domestic legitimacy and international soft power for the ruling Chinese Communist party.

Recent space exploration achievements featured prominently in propaganda to celebrate the centenary of the party’s founding on July 1. Included were photos sent from China’s first Mars rover and the arrival of crew members at China’s new Tiangong space station.

Since the US banned it from working with Nasa a decade ago over national security and technology theft concerns, Beijing has sought to cast itself as a welcoming and responsible spacefaring nation that is open to international collaboration.

It has invited scientists from across the world to conduct scientific experiments on its space station, as well as signing agreements with Russia to build a joint research base on the Moon.

But video of Chinese astronauts at Tiangong carrying out their first spacewalk during the weekend was overshadowed by online anger over Zhang’s alleged assault, with commentators prior to his detention asking why he had not been punished.

After the alleged altercation, Wu was hospitalised for several weeks and Wang made multiple trips to doctors, while Zhang continued to work as normal, the China News Weekly article said, citing doctors’ notes and a statement from China Aerospace Investment Holdings.

Zhang could not be reached for comment and China Aerospace Investment Holdings did not respond to emailed requests to comment on the case.

Additional reporting by Emma Zhou in Beijing