Party goes on, but would its icon recognise it?

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 March, 2011, 12:00am

In some of Shanghai's busiest subway stations, the revered visage of Lei Feng gazes out over bustling commuters like the ghost of propaganda past.

The suitably nostalgic, sepia-tinted images - part of a drive to promote Lei Feng Day, which is today - hang in stark contrast to the glossy advertisements for designer handbags and high-end perfumes. Few passers-by seem to give the posters a second glance.

It is a fairly safe bet the organisers didn't see the irony of an accident-prone subway network being endorsed by a man who died in a traffic accident.

The 'Learn from Lei Feng' campaign has been one of the longest running and most famous propaganda exercises of the communist era. The pre-Cultural Revolution tale of a selfless, party-loving (in the communist sense) soldier who died while on duty is regularly taken down from the top shelf and dusted off whenever state leaders feel the urge to instil a sense of altruistic duty in the general populace, but there are signs it may finally be showing its age.

The real story of Lei Feng, for anyone who cares to check, is more one of general military incompetence and a young life tragically cut short in a senseless accident - but since when did propagandists let a few facts get in the way of a good story?

Lei died in 1962, flattened by a telegraph pole knocked over by an army truck he was supposed to be directing. He was just 22, a virtually unknown People's Liberation Army grunt at the time of his death.

Posthumously, however, the Communist Party saw plenty of mileage in the story of this simple orphan who had humbly dedicated himself to party and people. The fact they had a stock of pictures showing the photogenic youth in classic revolutionary poses and supposedly engaging in good deeds to help the elderly and the poor was just an added bonus.

The following year an eloquently written diary - of questionable authenticity - was published and the cult of Lei Feng was born. He became so well-known that a town near his birthplace in Hunan province was renamed after him.

While Lei's name has long since entered mainlanders' everyday conversation as a byword for hard work, it is hard to see what relevance the old-style hero has in today's consumer-driven society.

Equally, what would the real Lei Feng have made of the nation almost 50 years after his death?

In Lei's day, the economy was in tatters, brought to its knees by the disastrous Great Leap Forward and about to be further ravaged by the Cultural Revolution. Today, the mainland is awash with hot cash as the country produces goods for the rest of the world to consume.

Society is now split between the haves and the have-nots - perhaps more so in money-minded Shanghai than anywhere else - with the latter desperate to join the ranks of the wealthy but most seeing their goal growing ever more distant. They are bombarded with advertisements persuading them of the need to own homes, cars and consumer goods, but frustrated that property prices are so high they have little hope of ever finishing paying for even a modest apartment.

Lei's beloved Communist Party remains in power, but many would argue that the mechanisms of the one-party state are about all it has in common with its former self. The party has abandoned its old ideology and used the cover-all excuse of 'Chinese characteristics' to embrace capitalism in all but name.

In the period after Lei's death, Mao Zedong preached 'continuous revolution', a brand of rhetoric designed to incite the masses, particularly the youth, to criticise and shake-up the old establishment.

Today, state leaders obsess about social harmony, and clamp down hard on dissent of any description. The knee-jerk response to the 'jasmine revolution' call of recent weeks - a fledgling movement that could have gone almost unnoticed if not for the government's attempts to suppress it - shows just how averse to criticism the party has become.

And the reliance on old-fashioned propaganda only serves to highlight the massive disconnect between government and people.

In far-flung rural provinces, there are still villagers with virtual shrines to in their living rooms. But speak to their neighbour, and chances are you will end up discussing the unreliability of state television news, and questions about the rosy picture the government is trying to paint.

The people have come a long way, and despite internet censorship, now have access to a variety of news sources, especially in the cities. If the authorities want to regain their trust, they may need to update their song sheet.

So happy Lei Feng Day, one and all. To mark the occasion, I shall be helping old ladies cross the street. Whether they like it or not.