- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 19, 2003

BEIJING — The creator of the original “Star Trek” made his 23rd-century crew diverse: It had an African communications officer, a Scottish chief engineer, a Russian navigator, a Japanese helmsman and, of course, a Vulcan science officer.

But on the bridge of USS Enterprise, when the show debuted in 1966, a Chinese was nowhere to be found.

That was hardly surprising. China was, to much of the Western world, a communist menace led by an erratic despot. With the Vietnam War escalating, few Americans captivated by the brushed-metal modernism of spaceflight could, or wanted to, imagine Red China sharing the journey.

No more. By bringing “taikonaut” Yang Liwei safely home from orbit, China’s communists staged the most compelling production of its ilk of their 54 years in power. The Shenzhou 5 mission, while grounded in science and the military, was at heart pure Hollywood blockbuster.

“China’s manned ‘Star Trek’ signals a brighter future,” the state newspaper China Daily enthused.

The space shot also represented a cultural collision — between a past saturated with ideological propaganda and a present that is increasingly capitalist, grounded in the global mass-media and video-game culture that so many young Chinese are embracing.

Last week left no doubt that China had learned from the pirated digital video discs of “Independence Day” and “Red Planet” sold cheap on its streets. High production values, unusual even for the increasingly modern China Central Television, began on takeoff.

Stirring symphonies of drums, strings and trumpets sounded over graphics resembling screen shots from Microsoft’s Flight Simulator. But with a few notes changed, they could have been the fanfares from “Star Wars,” “Superman II” or “Star Trek: Voyager.”

The dictatorship is worried about its image among its increasingly savvy people, and this is entirely in keeping with China’s approach to its decade-old space program.

A bit of hesitation was evident in the hours before launch, when plans to broadcast it live were scrapped abruptly without explanation. That lent credence to speculation that the government — or, more likely, the military — was worried about a public-relations disaster if things went wrong.

But within minutes of the successful launch, the barrage of graphics and visuals commenced, and it stayed right on message: China matters. China is admirable. China is as good, powerful and modern as anyone — particularly the United States.

On Friday, the government pointedly invoked its first atom-bomb test in 1964 — 39 years to the day before Shenzhou 5 landed — and noted how it “shocked the rest of the world.” Another report cited “China’s homemade spacecraft,” as if grandma had whipped it up from scratch. In reality, it is based on the Russian Soyuz model, albeit with major modifications.

Even the term “taikonaut” fit nicely into the production. Americans have their astronauts, Russians their cosmonauts, and now the word the Beijing government is deploying for international consumption draws on “taikong,” the Chinese word for space.

All this is little surprise. These days no one does public spectacle like China’s communists, who mastered it decades ago.

The premise still is communism, but the ideology is a strange mix of nationalism and the profit motive.

Mr. Yang, just by doing his job, became the perfect leading man, the latest anonymous Chinese plucked from the masses, this one anointed “space hero.” He is seen phoning home from orbit, promising to do well, praising the motherland.

Little is known about him, and that is convenient. Like Lei Feng, the obscure soldier killed in an accident in the 1960s and built into a party legend, Mr. Yang is a vessel for anything that government and people can dream up.

All last week the government repeated the tale of a Ming Dynasty dreamer named Wan Hu, who tied gunpowder-packed bamboo tubes to a chair about 500 years ago and tried to launch himself skyward. The device exploded and he was killed.

Now government statements promise the space program will succeed where Wan failed — exploiting the “remaining frontier of outer space and furthering the Chinese cause.”

As the weekend began, the carefully calibrated picture show that was Shenzhou 5 was still screening on China’s state television stations. Video that Mr. Yang took of Earth was rolling.

For one week in this nation, thanks to a complex blend of propaganda and patriotism, the final frontier was, finally, resoundingly Chinese.

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