Mainland media were awash with praise for two young heroes last week - 29 year-old teacher Zhang Lili and 31-year-old PLA soldier Shen Xing .
Zhang, a teacher at No.19 Middle School in Jiamusi in Heilongjiang province, lost both her legs after she was run over by a school bus after pushing two students out of its path on May 8.
An outpouring of sympathy was triggered online after her story was reported and she was dubbed by mainland media and internet users as 'the most beautiful teacher'.
'The most beautiful' is a label used by internet users when they learn of ordinary people helping others selflessly. For example, Wu Juping, a Hangzhou woman who became famous about a year ago after catching a toddler who had fallen from a ninth-floor ledge, was dubbed 'the most beautiful mom'.
The government propaganda machine was quick to ride on the flood of public sympathy for Zhang, calling her a 'post-80s Lei Feng'. Lei Feng was a PLA soldier touted by the government in the early 1960s as a model citizen devoted to the party and the nation. Despite the officials' best efforts to have him perceived as an icon, there is widespread doubt among the public about his accomplishments.
A commentary carried by the Beijing Daily on Friday compared Zhang to other 'post-80s' people - a term referring to those born after 1980 - who have impressed the public with their altruism, such as those who organised volunteers to help Sichuan quake victims four years ago.
'We can name many post-80s heroes like Zhang Lili The fact is, the post-80s is not a generation that was lost and we should have a new awareness and faith about them,' the signed commentary said. 'Our country is in a transitional period and people make very different moral choices.' It called on young people to take the initiative 'to pursue what is true, good and beautiful and form a moral force to propel the society to goodness'.
Online portal dbw.cn, a major news source for provinces in the northeast, yesterday ran an article that hailed Zhang as 'joyful, inspirational, kind and responsible'. Another article carried by the same portal on Friday said 'a sensation of learning from heroes has started'.
The Communist Youth League, which recruits and prepares young people to join the party, launched a campaign to encourage young people to learn from Zhang and PLA soldier Shen, according to the China Youth Daily on Wednesday.
Shen, a Second Artillery Corps officer, was killed when he jumped into a river in Shandong province to save a drowning student. League officials should make use of major media outlets, websites and even text messages to make the stories of these two heroes known to young people, the China Youth Daily said.
The all-out propaganda campaign shows the desperation of the party to win the hearts of the mainland's young, who are exposed to different ideologies and live in a more diversified society. But the power of such campaigns remains dubious. The mainland public lost trust in propaganda about modern 'heroes' a long time ago, jaded by the model citizens held up nightly on CCTV evening news and in official mouthpieces.
The public mistrust is understandable. Many heroic deeds, when involving officials, have been exaggerated to highlight the virtues of party members. Even if the deeds are genuine, they are exploited as political instruments to justify the authority of the party. While selflessness and sacrifice are exalted by the state, the public witnesses daily rampant corruption in the government and business sector.
When altruistic people don't fit the purposes of propaganda, they are seen as a challenge to communist rule, and are crushed.
An example is blind activist Chen Guangcheng and his brother Chen Guangfu. Isn't a blind man who drew attention to cruel forced abortions in a Shandong village as selfless a hero as Zhang? Isn't an ordinary man who is willing to face persecution to help his blind brother escape from house arrest and the bullying of local officials a hero himself?
If we apply the same standard to both Zhang and the Chens, shouldn't we call Chen Guangcheng 'the most beautiful blind man' and Chen Guangfu 'the most beautiful brother'? Only when selfless deeds are no longer used for political manipulation will they have a chance to inspire the young.