Thu, Oct 23, 2003 - Page 5 News List

China's space hero lying low since return to earth

AP , BEIJING

Astronaut Yang Liwei (楊利偉) isn't just China's first man in space. In the state press, he's lionized as an elite pilot, star student, Communist Party member and devoted family man. A "national treasure," one colleague is quoted as saying.

Curiously, Yang himself is nowhere to be seen. The center of a campaign to turn him into China's newest role model hasn't appeared in public in the more than five days since he returned from orbit.

But the media blitz has made his eight-year-old son the country's most famous third-grader.

Yang Ningkang made his television debut when his father talked to him from orbit. Since then, he has 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 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 21-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

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