Beijing searches for new pin-up boy as model soldier loses his shine

PUBLISHED : Friday, 03 August, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 03 August, 2007, 12:00am

The boyish face of the mainland's model soldier, Lei Feng , has recently appeared in two unlikely places - promoting condoms and doing good deeds in an online game.

As the People's Liberation Army seeks to grow beyond its guerilla roots and build a more professional and technologically advanced fighting force, Comrade Lei seems out of touch, despite attempts by some to give him a makeover.

The soldier - who some doubt ever existed - met an ignominious end when a pole accidentally knocked over by a fellow soldier fell on his head. He was known for his self-sacrifice, an ideal in short supply in the mainland's market economy.

'Nowadays, his good deeds have lost some lustre as China's modern society has become much more self-centred. Today's 'what's-in-it-for-me' generation knows Lei Feng from textbooks,' state media said last year.

Propagandists are unlikely to let the old soldier just fade away, despite his demotion to a marketing tool and a cartoon character. However, the government is looking for another hero as it tries to create a new image for the PLA.

The reputation of the army hit an all-time low after 1989, when soldiers fired on demonstrators in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.

Beijing's first astronaut, Colonel Yang Liwei , has the right stuff to take Lei's place. Before going into space in 2003, he was a fighter pilot with 1,350 hours of flight time.

The Shanghai Museum of Science shows a video of Colonel Yang in space, writing and gazing out the window. The exhibit lists his attributes as an astronaut: a sound mind, scientific knowledge and good physical fitness.

'Only those prepared for self-sacrifice, those with determination, faith and optimistic mental states who can handle danger and are good problem solvers, have the qualities to become an astronaut,' it said. To museum visitor Mike Zhou, 10, the astronaut is a hero. 'He's really great,' he said.

The government portrays all today's soldiers as possessing technical skills. State media claims that half of enlisted soldiers hold skills in several specialties, reflecting the needs of a modern army. New soldiers are also portrayed as internet savvy. The recent introduction of more stylish uniforms is partly motivated by moves to project a new image.

'Now that the vast majority of Chinese civilians have adopted western-style clothes, and trendy urbanites are on the hunt for cool items ... the 2.3 million people serving in the military are also doing a style catch-up,' China Daily said.

The army's tarnished image received a boost in 1998 after the government mobilised more than 270,000 soldiers to fight the worst floods the mainland had experienced in decades.

The government highlighted the sacrifices made by soldiers fighting the Yangtze River floods. At the height of the propaganda drive, the television news showed a young woman applying her breast milk to soldiers' insect bites in gratitude.

However, resentment persists because of widespread perceptions of corruption. Last year, the government ousted a deputy commander of the navy for financial crimes and keeping a mistress. Vehicles with military plates also flout traffic rules.

Zhang Shufen , director of the Lei Feng Memorial in Liaoning province , believes the model soldier could still be relevant with a little updating.

State media recently emphasised how Lei dressed fashionably and flouted the rules by wearing his hair long.

'I don't think we should change anything in the 'Lei Feng spirit', but pay attention to how to bring it forward and into the world,' Mr Zhang said.