Sun, Nov 02, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Kids and flags but still no genuine cheer for astronaut

MUTE RESPONSE The pro-Beijing press and local authorities laid on the rhetoric and the glitter for Yang Liwei, but the people of Hong Kong were underwhelmed

AP , HONG KONG

China's first astronaut hailed Hong Kong as part of the "Chinese family" yesterday, while critics called his visit a calculated attempt to bolster loyalty to the unpopular Beijing-backed government of this former British colony.

Beijing hopes the trip will shore up patriotism in a territory whose residents remain suspicious of Beijing's Communist regime since becoming part of China six years ago -- despite promises that Hong Kong could keep its own form of administration as well as Western-style freedoms.

But astronaut Yang Liwei (楊利偉) said he felt at home.

"Ever since arriving in our beautiful Hong Kong yesterday, I have felt the warmth of the Chinese family," Yang said yesterday at an exhibit of his Shenzhou V spacecraft.

Yang, sporting a blue astronaut's jumpsuit, worked a crowd of youngsters waving Chinese and Hong Kong flags when he arrived on Friday.

He later mingled with political figures at a reception hosted by Hong Kong's Beijing-backed leader Tung Chee-hwa (董建華).

The pro-Beijing newspaper Wen Wei Po said in a commentary yesterday that Yang's appearance was meant to lift spirits and "increase social unity in Hong Kong."

But it's unclear how effectively he can inspire patriotism in long-time British subjects who worry that Beijing will try to encroach on their freedoms.

While polls show feelings about China have improved, Hong Kong people are hardly brimming with national pride.

Yang has become a hero in the mainland -- but many here have given short shrift to China's first manned space mission.

The prestigious Hong Kong Economic Journal praised the historic feat in a commentary yesterday, but also said it would be more "cost effective" to buy space technology from Western countries instead.

Opposition lawmaker James To said yesterday that Yang had come to Hong Kong to "serve as Tung's cheerleader."

Tung's standing here has been badly battered by Hong Kong's faltering economy and his attempt to pass an anti-subversion bill, which was scuttled after mass protests.

Hong Kong's Apple Daily newspaper claimed that pro-government candidates are using Yang to improve their chances in coming District Council elections.

The newspaper said candidates from the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong (DAB) tried to curry favor with voters by handing out tickets to a welcome rally for the Chinese astronaut.

DAB spokesman Lam Yau-fau said he had no information on the alleged ticket giveaways.

Yang is scheduled to leave Hong Kong on Wednesday.

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