Lei Feng still a propaganda icon in China - half a century after his death


The Chinese government is keen to mobilise the spirit of Lei Feng to help give the country back a moral dimension, writes CLIFFORD COONANin Beijing

A PEOPLE’S Liberation Army propaganda icon who washed his friends’ socks and cut their hair for free, who devoted his life to good works, gave away all his money, who loved to help others and clean up, Lei Feng is a legend in China.

In the most common image of Lei Feng from the propaganda posters, he is holding his machine gun and gazing off meaningfully into the distance. Photographs show him smiling contentedly as he cleans the grille of a Communist Party car.

His life was tragically cut short in 1962, when the 22-year-old was hit by a telegraph pole that was knocked over by a reversing army truck that he was directing.

He is as powerful a revolutionary icon to Chinese as Kevin Barry is to a generation of Irish people, even though there are question marks about the historical accuracy of much of his glistening tales of model worker achievement. All schoolchildren have to “learn from Lei Feng”, although he is considered cheesy by a new, hip generation of Chinese.

Now, faced with a moral vacuum left by years of breakneck economic growth at all cost, the Chinese government is keen to mobilise the spirit of Lei Feng to help give a moral dimension to the country’s rise.

“As our society has developed we’ve seen the loss of good faith and distortions in our values,” Luo Shugang of the propaganda department of the Communist Party’s Central Committee told local media.

“To solve these issues, we must look to Lei Feng,” he said.

Many in China were badly shaken by events last year such as the case in October when a toddler, Yueyue, was run over and ignored by passersby, and there have been efforts to boost altruism among mainland Chinese.

And people are looking to Lei Feng – with a vengeance. Earlier this month there was Learning from Lei Feng Day, while in Kunming, 100 buses with images of Lei Feng took to the streets. There have been supermarkets of charity services set up, where people can have good works done and in the past 10 days, 150,000 people have visited a photo exhibition of Lei Feng’s life at the Beijing Military Museum. In Hangzhou in eastern China, they have opened a Lei Feng memorial museum.

“Our country’s phenomenal development over the last three decades has raised people’s living standards and made life convenient to a degree that would have been unimaginable 50 years ago.

“But at times it can seem that people are wearing blinkers and making money is the be-all-and-end-all of their existence,” ran an editorial carried in the China Daily.

“The celebration of the 50th anniversary of Lei Feng Day should serve as a reminder to others that altruism is always necessary for a harmonious society and provide fuel to the flame so it burns ever brighter,” it said.

Born in 1940 to a poor family in Changsha, Hunan province, not far from where the Great Helmsman Mao Zedong was born, Lei Feng was orphaned at the age of seven – his father was killed by Japanese soldiers and his mother took her own life because of pressure from an evil “running dog” landlord – but he was rescued by the local government.

At school he arrived early to clean the classroom for his fellow students, but he gave up school after six years because he wanted to join an agricultural work unit and help the Communist Party.

He joined the People’s Liberation Army, aged 20, his skills and enthusiasm winning him a place in Fushun, Lianoning Province, even though at 1.6m he was technically too short. He also joined the Communist Party.

All through his career, which has been incredibly well documented by the propaganda ministry, he performed good works.

“The Lei Feng spirit is still with us, even if at times it seems a flickering flame in danger of going out,” a commentator wrote.

Not everyone is so enthusiastic.

“Lei Feng was about class struggle, the cult of personality and to learn from him is fraudulent, is like worshipping a false idol to stop disclosing the truth,” wrote one Hubei blogger on the Weibo microblog.

Another in Fuzhou wrote: “Lei Feng was the product of socialism. Do we still have socialism today? Ask those people who ask us to learn from Lei Feng, what are their morals like?”