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A preselected crowd of flag-waving youngsters greeted China’s first astronaut Friday in Hong Kong, but many in this territory have been less than awed by Lt. Col. Yang Liwei’s trip through space.

Beijing hoped a visit by Yang — who orbited the Earth 14 times earlier this month — would inspire patriotism and respect in Hong Kong for the communist government in Beijing.

People here have been leery of the mainland since the territory’s 1997 hand over to China from Britain, however, and many shrugged off Yang’s space voyage.

“It’s just a gimmick,” said Fion Ho, 39, an accounting clerk.

“It’s nothing new. America did it years ago,” said David Choi, a 51-year-old Hong Kong businessman.

Beijing had hoped to melt the ice with a people-friendly itinerary for Yang’s visit that includes meetings with students and an appearance with local pop idols Nicholas Tse and Joey Yung.

At the airport, Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa led the applause as the just-arrived Yang shook hands and exchanged greetings with students, top government officials and Chinese military commanders.

Yang said he “felt the passion of our compatriots” in Hong Kong and insisted the credit for his successful mission belonged to all who worked on China’s space program.

The taikonaut — an English nickname drawn from the Chinese word for space, “taikong” — gave Tung a video of the inside of his Shenzhou 5 space capsule, which showed him trying to lean forward and bite a Chinese mooncake as it floated through the cabin.

Even though some Hong Kongers welcomed Yang as a hero, and local attitudes toward China’s Communist regime have softened, many are still coming to terms with nationalistic sentiments.

Retiree Joseph Lau called Yang’s flight “the pride of all Chinese.” But Lau admits he’s a little less proud of the mainland he left in 1937.

Some people attribute a lack of affection for the motherland to Beijing’s choice of the man to lead Hong Kong, the unpopular Tung, whom they blame for an economy that has worsened over the past few years.

“I’ve always liked Britain better,” said Irene Au, a 21-year-old university student. “The economy was in better shape under the British.” As for Yang’s space mission, Au says it was “blown out of proportion.”

Pro-Beijing figures charge that Tung’s government has done too little to encourage patriotism.

“National identity is not an electrical switch you can just turn on, but we’re not even laying the groundwork here,” said Ma Lik, a delegate to China’s National People’s Congress and a leader with the territory’s top pro-Beijing political party.

Ma called Yang’s visit a good start but said patriotism should be promoted more systematically from childhood. Ma believes singing the national anthem and raising the Chinese flag should be mandatory in the territory’s schools.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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