Great Hero Yang

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

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)
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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.”

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