Hong Kong greets Chinese astronaut

Sunday, November 2, 2003

HONG KONG -- Yang Liwei sang a duet with action star Jackie Chan as Hong Kong lavished a superstar's welcome on China's first astronaut Saturday -- a visit derided by critics as a veiled attempt by Beijing to boost the troubled government.

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 can keep its own administration and Western-style freedoms.

A mass rally was held for Yang, who orbited the Earth 14 times before landing on Oct. 16.

Chinese troops marched through the stadium, and the program kicked off only after a flag-raising ceremony and singing of the national anthem -- still a rare sight in Hong Kong.

Both practices are only recommended, but not required at local schools.

Yang, wearing a blue astronaut's jumpsuit and army-issue black boots, low-fived members of the audience as he made his way to the stage from a VIP booth.

"When I was in my spaceship or rocket, my heart did not beat faster, but faced with the enthusiasm of our Hong Kong compatriots, my heart started racing," he told a capacity crowd of 40,000.

Jackie Chan appeared late in the show and gave Yang a bear hug. They sang a morale-boosting song about courage.

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

Yang has been all over Chinese television, in government-approved interviews, but he's made no known public appearances on the mainland.

While polls show feelings about China have improved, people in Hong Kong are hardly brimming with national pride and many gave short shrift to China's first manned space mission.

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

The South China Morning Post reported Saturday that several students were paid to greet Yang at the airport.

Home Affairs Department spokeswoman Cynthia Tong denied the practice. "Judging from Yang's popularity these few days, that's not necessary," she said.

Opposition lawmaker James To said Saturday that Yang had come 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 tried to curry favor with voters by handing out tickets to the welcome rally. DAB spokesman Lam Yau-fau said he had no information on the alleged ticket giveaways.

Yang, who arrived Friday, was scheduled to leave Hong Kong on Wednesday.

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