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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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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