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China’s space hero stays hidden

Astronaut Yang Liwei can be found everywhere in the Chinese press and on television — but he hasn’t yet shown up in public.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Astronaut Yang Liwei, the icon, is everywhere in China, lionized in the state-run press and on television not only as the country’s first man in space, but also as an elite pilot, a star student and Communist Party member, a devoted family man — a “national treasure,” as one colleague is quoted saying. But Yang himself is nowhere to be seen.

The center of Beijing’s biggest “role model” campaign in years hasn’t appeared in public in the more than five days since he returned from orbit.

Instead, his 8-year-old son has been the human face of the media blitz.

Yang Ningkang made his debut on state television last week when his father talked to him from orbit, and has since appeared in state newspapers, grinning his gap-toothed grin, sometimes wearing his red scarf from the party’s Young Pioneers and flashing a V-for-victory sign.

“My daddy, Yang Liwei, is extremely glorious, and I am very proud of him,” the son said during a ceremony this week at his school.

The government hasn’t said when the elder Yang might appear in public, nor explained his absence. Yang Liwei was seen on state television during his landing Thursday, when he clambered from the kettle-shaped capsule without assistance, apparently healthy, pronouncing it “a splendid moment in the history of my motherland.”

His absence may be an attempt by the government to temper the individual side of the achievement it has been aggressively promoting.

“It is normal that Yang Liwei has been regarded as a national hero and a good example for the young to learn from,” said Peng Zongchao, a professor of public policy at Tsinghua University in Beijing.

However, Peng 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.”

The 'instant hero'
The campaign to promote Yang Liwei began minutes after his launch — and minutes after his identity, kept secret until the liftoff, was revealed. A week later, state television regularly reruns scenes of him in orbit — hard at work or talking by radio with China’s defense minister or with his wife and “dear son.” Without irony, the official Xinhua News Agency calls him an “instant hero.”

It’s an image crafted for a ruling party that needs a high-tech hero to pep up its reputation. But this is the same party whose very existence depends on the group being more important than any individual — and whose power often depends on its leaders hogging the spotlight.

When state media announced Monday that the People’s Liberation Army lieutenant colonel had been promoted to colonel, they stressed that it was not for the 21½-hour flight, but for “excellent performance as a member of the team” beforehand. Indeed, they even said he had been promoted weeks ago but only informed after the mission so he wouldn’t be distracted.

China’s space program employs tens of thousands of people, many of whom work in secrecy and will never see the limelight.

Yang’s identity was unknown a week ago, and state media insisted he was picked just hours before the flight from among three finalists. Any one of them would have become China’s new hero instead.

But by contrast to China’s bland, group-oriented leadership, Yang has struck a chord with the public, piling up a record of personal achievement and surviving a grueling section process. Emerging from his Shenzhou 5 capsule, he looked exhausted and a bit dazed but still greeted his ground crew with a smile and a wave.

“Yang Liwei’s name will long be recalled, while nobody will talk about the politicians!” said a message posted on a Web site run by the party newspaper People’s Daily.

Such publicity for a living person is almost unknown in China’s communist system.

‘Model workers'
China lauds “national martyrs” such as Wang Wei, the fighter pilot who died in a 2001 collision with a U.S. Navy spy plane. The ruling party still picks plumbers and bus drivers for brief fame as “model workers.” But the last living target of such gushing praise was Qian Sanqiang, leader of the program that built China’s first atomic bomb — and that was in 1964.

Yang’s home county in China’s northeast is reportedly trying to cash in on his fame. The newspaper Shenyang Today said leaders there are registering his name as a trademark for local produce.

In an even rarer step, honors extend to Yang’s son.

On Monday, party officials visited the school in northwestern Beijing that Yang Ningkang’s son attends with the children of other astronauts. The principal gave his class the honorary title “Space Squadron.”

Standing beside a model rocket, Yang Ningkang 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,” he said, according to reporters who were there. “I want to be like daddy and travel to outer space some day.”

Then Yang Ningkang refused to answer reporters’ questions, saying the principal told him not to.