The long March silly season seeks to spread Lei Feng zeal
SHANGHAI, as the mainland's business centre, normally does not have much of an appetite for politics. But this is the political season, so let me indulge.
First of all it is March. That is the month that triggers official memories of Lei Feng, a hero of a somewhat different era. Those were the days before socialism gave way to the market economy.
For readers not acquainted with this selfless soldier, allow me to offer a few details. Lei Feng, with his exemplary revolutionary spirit, was ready to serve the Communist Party. Known as the 'rustless screw', he was always where the Party needed him most.
Lei Feng was willing to go above and beyond the call of duty, if not credulity, in his quest to help his fellow man.
Every year around March 5 - the day supposed to be his birthday - stories about him pop up in the official media. One sampling is from the Jiefang Daily, which ran the headline: 'Lei Feng is still with us'. Beside it was a photo of a taxi driver helping a man on crutches into his cab. One of the city's taxi firms has offered free service from hospitals on March 5 - in honour of Lei Feng.
Not to be outdone, the Wenhui Daily ran a colour photo of a Lei Feng poster in a Shanghai bookstore's window. The caption read: 'Lei Feng is in our hearts.' Museums and temporary displays around the country show Lei Feng memorabilia. Many purport to have his diary - usually open at the same page. This worked when people were not allowed to travel freely but it is no longer a useful propaganda tool.
One of the more amusing photos of our hero was one of him 'secretly' washing the socks of his fellow soldiers. His selfless actions were unknown to any of his comrades despite the fortuitous presence of an official photographer who was able to record the event for the sake of future generations.
Alas, Lei Feng died in a most unfortunate accident, said to have been caused by a careless lorry-driver who backed into a telephone pole which then fell on the revolutionary hero. That is about as believable as some of the testimony from the Enron hearings in the United States.
Of course, March has other claims on the silly season.
This is the time that the National People's Congress (NPC) convenes. Sometimes it is referred to as a parliament - a description that usually drives my British colleagues to distraction as it is rather unlike Britain's parliament. American journalists tend to wince when they see the body referred to as a congress because it is so far removed from the Congress they know.
Whether it is congress or parliament, however, is not as important as the description that precedes it. 'Toothless', 'rubber stamp', 'hapless' and 'ceremonial' are some of the more polite varieties.
Initiatives for legislation come from the Communist Party. The actual law-making role falls to a small group of experts, most of them not representatives at all, and they turn their handiwork over to an NPC standing committee.
The NPC does have its uses, however. It is a brilliant display of ethnic costumes worn by the people's representatives as they gather in Beijing's Great Hall of the People. Like the colourful clothes, the NPC goes back into the closet after its brief annual session.
The meeting does give the comrades-in-the-street a glimpse of their leaders, however. Premier Zhu Rongji gave the keynote speech on the opening day. During Mr Zhu's term, the speech has changed considerably. It is now much shorter, with far fewer empty slogans that were common under his predecessors.
The public will also get to see Mr Zhu in action on the final day, when he takes questions from reporters. The public will probably see another skilful performance. There was, however, a small misstep last year when Mr Zhu struggled to explain what was meant by the 'three representatives' - a theory close to the heart of President Jiang Zemin. Mr Zhu may have tried to atone for that this year by making a pointed reference to this important theory on the role of the Party.
This year there have been other benefits from the gathering.
Shanghai television showed the city's former mayor, Xu Kuangdi, as he visited the Shanghai delegation on its arrival in Beijing. The popular Mr Xu was given a much less visible job in the capital in December leading to speculation that he had been sidelined. Before his sudden departure there was talk about friction with the real source of power in Shanghai, party chief Huang Ju. The camera lingered on their particularly friendly encounter. Chinese newspapers, however, avoided the subject, ensuring there was not too much publicity for the ex-mayor.
Meanwhile, Shanghai delegates showed a little bit of the Lei Feng spirit at the meeting.
With great enthusiasm they endorsed Mr Zhu's work report, and their praise continued as they repaired to their hotel.
Unfortunately, all of this will fade away once March gives way to April. Then it will be back to business as usual for Shanghai - until the silly season catches up with us again next year.