Great Hero Yang
In 2003, China's first astronaut stepped out of his space capsule and into the limelight.
- By James R. Hansen
- Air & Space magazine, March 2007
(Page 3 of 4)
During his two-day visit, Yang visited several of Macao’s historic landmarks and spent an afternoon with 1,000 students and teachers, answering questions. The visit was profitable: As a result, an ad hoc consortium in Macao raised more than 14 million patacas (about $1.75 million) for the China Space Foundation—an organization that promotes China’s space industries (not to be confused with the China National Space Administration, the counterpart to America’s NASA).
After Macao, “Great Hero Yang,” as he was called in the press, visited the northern coastal metropolis Tianjin, which the World Health Organization had slapped with a travel advisory for its SARS outbreak just a few months earlier. Some of the most violent protests against locating SARS clinics in local communities had taken place in Tianjin, and Beijing may well have wanted the astronaut’s visit to help raise the city’s spirits.
But the impact of Yang’s historic achievement ranged far beyond these few cities, selected by the government for political purposes. The Shenzhou flight triggered nothing less than a nationwide frenzy—what one Western observer called a “flowering of patriotic kitsch.” In Shanghai, an estimated half-million people queued in freezing weather to see China’s first astronaut. At a high-profile rally in Beijing, Yang received the title “Space Hero.” The General Political Department of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army decreed him a “model” for Chinese soldiers and ordered all members of the PLA and the Chinese People’s Armed Police to learn from Yang and his “heroic achievement.” “Military activities in various forms should be conducted to study the spirit of the astronauts,” the decree said.
One reaction to Yang’s flight that the regime may not have anticipated was the immediate commercialization of his name. Everything from rice to milk to action figures quickly bore the astronaut’s image, name, or title. The government tried to put a stop to this by trademarking and copyrighting the astronaut’s name and likeness, but with only limited success. Naturally, Yang’s home county in northeast China got into the act, selling “Great Hero Yang” lettuce and cabbage and naming a special white pear after him.
At one point, Beijing felt the need to cut back on Yang’s public appearances to temper the celebrity it had been so aggressively promoting. Commenting on the astronaut’s public absence, Peng Zongchao, a professor of public policy at Qinghua University in Beijing, said, “The government should make sure there aren’t excessive reports about one individual, because behind the success there was a whole project and system supporting the mission.”
But “Great Hero Yang” again attracted attention when in the spring of 2004 he toured the United States. In New York, he met with Secretary-General of the United Nations Kofi Annan and presented two U.N. flags he had carried on Shenzhou V. In Washington, Yang visited Senator Bill Nelson of Florida, the only serving member of Congress to have flown in space, and Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin. He toured Florida’s Kennedy Space Center, met Mickey Mouse at Disney World, and got a VIP view of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Texas. Yang’s U.S. tour was widely reported in the Chinese press and shown on Chinese television. A Web site run by the party newspaper, People’s Daily, had a message reading “Yang Liwei’s name will long be recalled, while nobody will talk about the politicians!”
In the past, individuals in China almost never enjoyed this kind of acclaim, except for leaders of the regime itself. China had lauded “national martyrs” such as Wang Wei, the fighter pilot who died when his F-8 fighter collided with a U.S. Navy EP-3E aircraft in 2001, but when looking for people to serve as role models, the communist party usually picked plumbers and bus drivers for brief fame as “model workers.”
Having watched the public adulation with some dismay, Chinese officials followed a very different strategy with the two crew members of Shenzhou VI, who flew into space in October 2005. The government essentially hid the astronauts from view—there were a few celebratory events in Hong Kong and China, but no roadshow.