FOR Chinese readers, the expose of a pristine national hero and role model was a real shock, and they reacted much in the same way as the world did when it was revealed US basketball star Magic Johnson tested HIV positive. ''I could scarcely believe it,'' said an intellectual after reading an April edition of Writers Weekly, a fairly obscure journal published in Jinan, Shangdong province. On the front page, wearing simple military dress and looking every bit the ''rustless screw'' who wanted no more out of life than to serve the people, was Lei Feng, the man canonised by Mao Zedong in 1963 after his untimely death when a big pole fell on his head. But there was another side to Lei Feng, one hitherto kept from the masses. ''Lei Feng and girl he loved,'' read the headline. According to the story, which took up the front and back pages of the newspaper, Lei Feng not only had a girlfriend, but was being pursued by other women as well. In addition, the man whose tattered sneakers sit in a museum in northern China, as testimony to his saintly simplicity, had bought, we are now told, a brown leather jacket, an expensive pair of deep blue woollen trousers and a pair of leather shoes. Taboos are crumbling in China, and tabloids are building new empires on the ruins. While the more sober journals, such as the People's Daily, are still forced into a rigid propaganda mould by such austere institutions as the Communist Party, local newspapers competing for circulation and revenue have been testing the limits of the more liberal atmosphere wrought by economic reform. Sensitive political news is still avoided like the plague. Yet, journalists are able to delve into social issues with a vigour which was not tolerated a few years ago. Whether the tabloid-style approach constitutes good journalism is a moot point. But it does make good reading. ''In 1992 there was a deep change in our country's press,'' said the Southern Weekly, a Guangzhou-based broadsheet. ''More and more newspapers go to the market . . . and readers have become their god.'' THAT comment was made in an article placed next to a huge photo of a half-naked man and a naked woman, arms and legs entangled. The story below was about the phenomenon of ''experimental marriage'', that is, living together before marrying. Do not be fooled by the boring title of the publications. The Yangtze River Development Weekly, for example, would turn off many a reader by its name. Yet its headlines have much to offer. One edition last month, carried a front-page article about a Korean woman who was sent to northeastern China in the 1940s to act as a ''comfort woman'', or prostitute, for Japanese troops during their military occupation. The woman, who now lives in Hubei province, was forced to serve up to 30 Japanese soldiers in a weekend, the newspaper said. While the Chinese press has previously reported on the issue of comfort women, it has shied away from individual cases based on interviews with victims. Next to the story on comfort women was an article about a so-called homosexual salon in Beijing, and the gay areas of the city. Another newspaper, the Legal Times, recently carried a report about female criminals, and said 90 per cent of all crimes committed by women in China involved sex. ''I think they just wanted to use this story as an excuse to carry a picture of a half-naked woman on the front page,'' said a Chinese journalist. ''I was told by a newspaper that if you have an image of a woman instead of a man on the cover of a magazine, it increases circulation by 20,000.'' As for Lei Feng, the Writers Weekly proudly proclaimed its scoop was worthy of a movie. ''I will love him for ever,'' the paper quoted Yi Xiuzhen, Lei Feng's girlfriend, as saying. The couple, both working at the Anshan Iron and Steel Company at the time, met on a train. Their first date took place over a meal of steamed buns. ''When she was about to leave, Lei Feng took a step toward her and the two young people stood very closely. It seemed they could hear each other's heart beat,'' the paper said. Ms Yi took Lei Feng to a dance hall once, and was embarrassed that he was wearing patched clothing while everyone else was well-dressed. That prompted Lei Feng to go out shopping for new clothes. ''When he was alive, he never said he loved me, but after his death he often enters my dreams and tells me: 'Little Yi, I love you','' she said.