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China's first astronaut, Yang Liwei (left) got a visit last September from Leroy Chiao, the first astronaut of Chinese descent to walk in space. (Courtesy Leroy Chiao)

Great Hero Yang

In 2003, China's first astronaut stepped out of his space capsule and into the limelight.

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As soon as the divine vessel reached orbit over the Pacific Ocean, the Chinese people knew they had accomplished something remarkable. Inside the eight-ton Shenzhou V spacecraft, their 38-year-old countryman Yang Liwei, a lieutenant colonel in the People’s Liberation Army, had entered the history books, joining the elite company of the Soviet Union’s Yuri Gagarin and America’s Alan Shepard as “first men” in space.

On October 15, 2003, the yuhangyuan or taikonaut (as some Western journalists had come to call a Chinese astronaut) spent a little more than 21 hours in space, orbiting Earth 14 times before his capsule reentered the atmosphere and parachuted onto the grassy steppe of central Inner Mongolia.

Pride in being Chinese was never higher. “Fifty years ago Chairman Mao declared, ‘The Chinese people have stood up,’ ” one citizen remarked to a journalist in Tiananmen Square.

“Now the Chinese people have left their feet and flown into space!”

The government had tried to keep its first astronaut anonymous, but a few days before the launch, Yang’s identity was discovered and his picture published in a Hong Kong newspaper. Beijing then agreed to a live broadcast of his launch, but apparently lost its nerve at the last minute. It wasn’t until 30 minutes after Shenzhou V achieved orbit that the government’s flagship station cut into regular programming to make the proud announcement. Televised replays quickly followed, beginning a day of saturation coverage by the state-owned Chinese media. Yang’s most reported remark, within China at least, was the one he made when shaking hands with Hu Jintao, his country’s president, upon leaving for the launch pad: “I will not disappoint our Motherland. I will complete each movement with total concentration, and I will gain honor for the People’s Liberation Army and for the Chinese nation.”

Despite the bombast, what the Chinese people seem to have appreciated most during Yang’s flight was his communication with his eight-year-old son, Ningkong. In a Confucian society—which China has remained, despite its communism—the father-son relationship is fundamental. Although American astronauts rarely comment from space about their families, the Chinese press placed great emphasis on Yang talking lovingly to his “dear wife” and “dear son.” After his return, a picture showing Yang and his wife Zhang Yumei embracing appeared in virtually every Chinese newspaper. The caption said she asked her husband what wonderful things he saw in space. “I saw our planet,” he told her. “It’s so beautiful, like you.”

The story was an instant hit with the public. The People’s Daily ran 100,000 extra copies, which were quickly snapped up. In some towns, parades and demonstrations broke out spontaneously. Schoolchildren drew pictures of spaceships and astronauts. Hundreds of wall posters appeared, many combining themes of 21st century technology with more traditional styles of socialist realism. Postage stamps were printed in Yang’s honor. The People’s Liberation Army Daily trumpeted: “For China this is the beginning and there will be no end.”

Nor was it the end for Yang, who within a week of his landing went on tour. Accompanied by his son, he opened an exhibition of his Shenzhou V capsule, spacesuit, and parachute in Beijing, the first stop in a roadshow across China. Next up was Hong Kong, where Yang’s visit, at the special invitation of the regional government, lasted six days.

In 2003, Hong Kong’s conversion from a British colony to a “special administrative region” of the People’s Republic of China with its own legal system, currency, and immigration laws wasn’t going especially well. Morale in the city was low, its economy was weak, and officials of the new regime were so unpopular that the city had been hit by unprecedented anti-government protests. The city also suffered that year from an outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which had killed more than 100 people.

Several Hong Kong (and Taiwanese) newspapers criticized the astronaut’s visit as a thinly veiled attempt to boost pro-Beijing political parties in the region’s upcoming elections. Correspondents reported that many Hong Kong residents were indifferent to Yang’s feat. “It’s nothing new—America did it years ago,” a businessman said. “I won’t feel anything just because of his visit,” admitted a downtown shopkeeper. “It’s just a gimmick,” declared an accounting clerk. A 21-year-old female university student said, “I always liked Britain better.”

Others were not so jaded. A survey by the Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups found that after hearing the news about Shenzhou V, 71 percent of the city’s young people felt prouder of being Chinese. Financial support for Yang’s visit came from nearly 50 organizations in Hong Kong, not all of them pro-Beijing, and Yang’s appearances attracted people of all ages. For the first time in the history of Hong Kong’s Science Museum, an exhibit was kept open around the clock, for four straight days, to meet demand. When the astronaut arrived, several thousand people waving Chinese and Hong Kong flags lined the streets. “It’s worth the wait,” said a 73-year-old man. “I never thought I would live to see the day that China could proudly stand alongside the United States and Russia as nations that sent a man into space!” “I think they should make a cartoon strip of Yang,” offered an 11-year-old boy. “I just want to shake hands with Uncle Yang,” said another elementary school student.

As he was driven around Hong Kong Stadium in a golf cart, a capacity crowd of 40,000 gave Yang a standing ovation. Inside was a party of Hong Kong pop celebrities and movie stars, including Jackie Chan, whom Yang joined in a song. In a country where the concept of celebrity is still relatively new, only a few people aside from politicians—like pop singer Gao Feng, NBA basketball player Yao Ming, film star Zhang Ziyi, and Olympic diving star Guo Jinjing—are widely recognized. In Hong Kong Stadium, it was clear the country’s first astronaut had the same mystique. “Uncle Yang looks more handsome in person than on the TV screen,” said a primary school student who came to the stadium with her father. The Chinese Language Daily commented, “Yang is not just a star. The welcome he received from Hong Kong residents exceeded that of any star. He is the superstar, supported by Hong Kong residents of different age groups and different walks of life.”
What appealed most to ordinary people about Yang, however, was not pop glitziness but characteristics like self-control and diligence, which are more essentially Chinese. Born in Lioaning Province, a major industrial region near the North Korean border, his background was by no means humble or poor; his mother was a teacher and his father an economist. He joined the army at 18 and was recruited by one of the Chinese air force’s top aviation colleges, where he earned the highest grade in every one of his classes.

As a pilot of attack aircraft, he had shown cool under pressure when, during a low-flying exercise over the barren Xinjiang region, his aircraft lost an engine. Yang radioed his situation, climbed to 5,000 feet—high enough to clear snow-covered Mt. Tien-shan—and landed safely at his base after his other engine flamed out. Emerging from the cockpit dripping with sweat, Yang was greeted by cheers from his colleagues and an on-the-spot promotion from his division commander.

In 1996, he and a dozen other pilots were chosen from a pool of 1,500 candidates for spaceflight training. During the first two years of a rigorous program, he reportedly never went to bed before midnight, and rarely left the training center. So dedicated was he to training that his wife once found him at home moving rapidly in circles on a swivel chair—his own jury-rigged “centrifuge.” In a critical series of final simulations leading to his selection for Shenzhou V, Yang identified and remedied all the problems his instructors had thrown at him. After each, when the instructor asked him whether he had made any errors, Yang confidently replied, “No errors at all.” When a psychologist asked how he would feel if he were to fly a real spacecraft, Yang said, “I’ll be more relaxed than talking to you, so let me go for the flight.”

The combination of modesty and confidence struck a chord with the Chinese public. Newspaper article after newspaper article described Yang as “looking healthy and respectful and speaking in appropriate terms, with honest and cordial attitude.” In return, the astronaut claimed to be “deeply moved” by the warmth of his reception from the “big Chinese family,” and said at one event that the acclaim “made my heart beat faster than when I was in the spacecraft.”

Leaving Hong Kong, Yang traveled to Macao, whose sovereignty had transferred from Portugal to Beijing in 1999. Macao’s problems were different from Hong Kong’s, having to do with wrenching economic transformations that had turned what was once a sleepy village with gambling dens into a tourist destination with huge modern casinos. Like Hong Kong, Macao was primarily concerned with national unification.

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.

As for Yang, it’s uncertain whether he will fly in space again. He has become an icon, lionized in the state-run press not only as the country’s first man in space but as a star student, communist party member, devoted family man, and national treasure. Even his eight-year-old son became a celebrity, showing up over and over again in the Chinese media. On one occasion, party officials visited the boy’s school and bestowed on his class the honorary title of “Space Squadron.” Standing beside a model rocket, young Ningkong gave a speech praising his father’s accomplishment. “People asked me if I was afraid about Daddy going into space, and I said ‘Not a bit,’ because I knew that China’s space technology was very advanced and Daddy was really awesome. I want to be like Daddy and travel to outer space someday.’ ”

With two Shenzhou flights accomplished and more to follow, it seems likely that other Chinese youth of Ningkong’s generation will do exactly that—and perhaps someday reach the moon and Mars. Judging from the public reaction to Yang’s flight, the Chinese people are excited by their prospects in space—and by the man who led the way.

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