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China’s Astronaut Yang Liwei Hailed as National Hero - 2003-10-16

As China embarks on its first manned mission into space, the man who is piloting the craft has become an instant national hero.

Yang Liwei was unknown to most Chinese until just a few hours before the Shenzhou 5 space capsule lifted off Wednesday, blasting China into the era of manned space flight.

Colonel Yang is a 38-year-old lieutenant colonel of the Chinese air force who joined the military at the age of 18. He comes from the northeastern Liaoning province, part of an area known as China's rust belt for its closed down factories and high unemployment.

Colonel Yang, described as a small man measuring 1.68 meters and weighing scarcely over 50 kilos, had been training for the mission for years.

Fame caught up with him early Wednesday, when he was chosen for the mission over two other finalists. Chinese state television showed him receiving orders from his commander moments before boarding the spacecraft.

The astronaut told his commander he was ready to carry out the mission and was awaiting orders, before smiling and walking past a cheering group of people on his way to the launch pad.

Virtually no one in the general public knew who Yang Liwei was on Wednesday morning. By afternoon, however, people across the world's most populous nation knew that he is married to a woman soldier and has an eight-year-old son. And they even knew what he had eaten for lunch: a Chinese delicacy of chicken and rice with nuts and dates - his first meal in space.

At one of Beijing's busy subway stations, a mosaic portraying scenes of Chinese space exploration draws the attention of Wu Bailing, a man in his 60's who said Colonel Yang has made him feel proud to be Chinese.

“I don't know Yang Liwei personally, but his willingness to take this job and his bravery shows the real character of the Chinese people," he said.

Some people say Colonel Yang represents a link in China's history between an ancient past filled with technological discoveries and the future.

State-run media on portrayed Yang Liwei as continuing the work of ancient scientist Wan Hu. According to legend, the scientist unsuccessfully tried to blast himself into the heavens 500 years ago by strapping bamboo tubes filled with gunpowder to his chair.

Others have likened Yang Liwei to Lei Feng, a soldier whom the early Communist government portrayed as the personification of Socialist values. Critics have charged the government tailored aspects of the Lei Feng persona to build national pride, unity and faith in China's socialist system.

The sudden portrayal of Yang Liwei as a national hero comes at a time when the government is coming under growing internal pressure to resolve problems of poverty and rising unemployment brought by China's rapid transition to a market economy.