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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.

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.

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