Life and soul of the Party

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 March, 2012, 12:00am


It was a rare fresh morning in February and the clocks were striking eight. On a corner in central Beijing, about six kilometres north of Tiananmen Square, a group of primary-school children with green uniforms were moving hastily into a small building 10 minutes before class. Some waved impatiently to their doting parents, who had ridden their kids to the school on bicycles.

As they went through the gate, a giant image on the school building greeted them. It was comrade Lei Feng, the school's namesake.

Once the mainland's most famous role model, Lei Feng has faded into history, remembered mainly as a name appended to schools like this one.

This year, however - the 50th anniversary of his death - the Communist Party is resurrecting Lei Feng for one more turn as a propaganda superstar.

The young soldier from Hunan, only 21 when he died in 1962, is on duty again - this time in an ideological drive to promote nationalism. On Friday, the People's Daily published an editorial saying fresh meaning should be given to the cultural icon to fit with the realities of life on the mainland today.

'[When we launch] the campaign 'To learn from Lei Feng' under the new circumstances, we need to give new and relevant meanings to the 'Lei Feng Spirit' - that is to fervently promote Lei Feng's passion to love the motherland... and his love for the supreme ideal of socialism in order to guide people to strengthen their nationalist sentiment,' the party mouthpiece said.

To the paper, Lei Feng Spirit can't come back too soon. In a society where conflicts are rising and new ideas are having an impact, it sees an urgent need to provide an ideological platform that unifies people's hearts.

Over the past five decades, the symbol of Lei Feng has been assigned different meanings according to the political needs of the Communist Party at the time.

In reality, Lei Feng was barely known until, after his death, Chairman Mao extolled him as an exemplar of selflessness and loyalty to rally support as the economy was recovering from his disastrous Great Leap Forward.

Lei died, according to his official biography, when he was helping a truck driver back up. The truck struck a telephone pole, which hit him.

A diary allegedly written by Lei was rolled out by the Communist Party in 1963 and people across the country were urged to learn from the generous Lei Feng and his allegiance to the party.

Today, a mainlander who doesn't know Lei Feng is like an American who doesn't know Martin Luther King, or a Japanese can't recognise the Hello Kitty brand - only worse.

For a while, in the 1960s, Lei was everybody's hero. In 1963, the book Learn From Comrade Lei Feng - a saying of Mao Zedong's - sold more than eight million copies.

According to one story published in China Youth that October, one young cook was unable to find a copy in bookstores. Instead he borrowed one and copied the entire book by hand - over 100,000 words, including tributes from party leaders.

'In the 60s, one would feel guilt and shame if one couldn't tell Lei's heroic story,' said Xu Youyu, a renowned philosopher in Beijing.

Xu was a teenage Red Guard at the time of the Cultural Revolution. He changed his name to 'Xu Feng' under the influence of Lei, and changed it back years later when the fever died down. 'Actually no one would dare to say he doesn't know much about Lei.'

Everybody on the mainland was encouraged to follow Lei's example - to be as selfless, modest, and above all dedicated, as him.

Generations of schoolchildren studied the young hero's life and every March 5, the anniversary of Mao's salute to Lei, went out to do a good turn such as helping an elderly person to cross the street, as their 'Uncle Lei Feng' had done decades before.

On March 5, 49 years ago, Mao wrote a calligraphy, 'to learn from Comrade Lei Feng.' And in 1990, then-president Jiang Zemin wrote his own calligraphy on the same day to promote the spirit of Lei Feng.

March 5 became a remembrance day for Lei Feng on the mainland. And like all such drives, its real purpose was to reinforce the communist system itself.

So every time the party leaders worried about social stability, they breathed new life into Lei.

The promulgation of Lei has come in waves. One swept in after the economic reform in the late 1980s, when the party realised it had loosened control over people's minds after the 'open door' policy.

Another arrived in the late 1990s, when the mainland was suffering from the dismantling of state-owned enterprises and socialist welfare systems.

Another well-planned Lei Feng crusade appears to be under way now. The National Congress in October encouraged people to 'learn from Lei Feng comprehensively'. This year the celebration, tied to the 50th anniversary of Lei's death, started earlier than usual and the scale is larger.

In a forum on Tuesday, Liu Yunshan, the Communist Party's propaganda chief, said it would promote the spirit of Lei Feng in companies, schools, communities, villages and online.

At the Beijing Lei Feng Primary School, the 200 children were told to write their own 'Lei Feng style diary' in the run-up to the March 5 anniversary.

The children are supposed to tell their teachers and parents what good turns they do. The school has been doing this every year since 1973.

Lei was famous for his diaries. Though he sought no attention for the good things he did, he recorded them in his diary. When it was found after his death, his reputation rose. 'Do good things but never tell others,' became an oft-quoted line in government propaganda.

'The heavy promotion on Lei made us write fake diaries... we were actually expecting the party officials to see the good things we did,' Xu said.

In the '60s, people would leave their diaries lying around so that they would be read by officials in the hope of gaining promotion, he recalled, and 'at the end everyone became an opportunist in politics'.

Xu said the government loves Lei not just because he did good things privately, but also for his unconditional love for the party. His greatest desire was to be nothing more than 'a revolutionary screw that never rusts', a line from Lei's diary that most adults on the mainland know by heart.

'The leaders want everyone to be like Lei Feng, a pure collectivist who doesn't care about individual freedom and personal interests,' Xu explained. 'Lei wasn't a citizen, but a screw in the giant party machine.'

At Beijing Lei Feng Primary, the diaries written by the schoolchildren in past decades are all carefully stored in a special room. The paper of the older ones has yellowed with age.

'I want to learn from uncle Lei Feng, and become a good student of Chairman Mao,' wrote third-grader Su Yurong in 1973.

Many touch on stories about Lei: how he was orphaned and raised by the party, or how he helped a woman with two children get home on a cold, rainy night.

The new push reflects the general desire of party leaders to clean up the perceived ills of modern China, such as money worship and corruption.

'The moral degeneration of our society is getting worse day by day; people are worried about society and hence yearn for Lei Feng,' said Wu Shulin, deputy director of the General Administration of Press and Publication. 'Today not only schoolchildren and the youth need to learn from Lei Feng, but also the government officials and the elites in society.'

Back at the classroom, children heard from a special guest: Lu Jinhua, the former teacher who initiated the Lei Feng diary campaign in the school 39 years ago.

'Uncle Lei Feng was so generous to help others,' Lu told the class as a Beijing Television cameraman shot video for a school promo.

'I'm so sick of these [tributes],' the cameraman murmured. 'They are so fake.'

He is not alone in that sentiment. Today on the mainland, reactions to Lei range widely. Sceptics question the authenticity of Lei's diary; some even say Lei Feng never existed at all and was fabricated by the party.

Lu Ya, deputy director of the Communist Youth League's department of youth workers, said their research showed many young mainlanders knew very little about Lei, if they had even heard of him.

'The values of our society have become more diversified, and it's very hard to persuade people to have one moral idol,' he said.

Xu believed Lei Feng could have been a good person, but that the party had over-propagandised him.

'Once the propaganda during the Cultural Revolution became a joke, people didn't trust the story of Lei Feng any more,' Xu said. 'The propaganda machine needs to find a new way to persuade people.'

The government seems to recognise the problem. Stories in the mainstream media today focus not only on the good things Lei did but try to depict a more rounded, human figure to make him more relevant to the public. In the latest descriptions, Lei is no longer a perfect, selfless hero, but an ordinary young man who loved dancing, taking photographs and writing poems.

Letters and uncensored photos have also been published. Zhang Jun, a photographer who took many pictures of Lei before his death, even said in a recent article: 'Lei Feng liked wearing his hair long, which is banned in the army. So he put his hat on often.'

One picture showed Lei standing in front of Tiananmen Square with a bag - once carefully removed by an editor decades ago during the Cultural Revolution because it represented a 'bourgeois lifestyle' and might have damaged Lei's image.

Guo Yiqiang, deputy director of the publicity department's publication sector, described the party's new approach: 'When we were young, we were made to study from Lei Feng passively, and we didn't question why we should learn from him. Now we should simply tell the public that Lei is a good man, and every society would welcome a good man like him.'

In the classroom, the children are cued to sing a song from the old days: 'Learn from Lei Feng, a good role model. Loyal to the revolution and the party,' they sing with excitement.

Asked to explain the word 'revolution', a timid boy named Li Donghao becomes speechless.

Perhaps the concept is too much for these children. Their favourite cartoon is Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf, an animated television series about the endless rivalry between a wolf and a goat.

When asked if he knows about the Pleasant Goat, Li this time responds loudly and clearly: 'Yes.'