In recent weeks, China has been engulfed in a wave of state propaganda centered around Lei Feng (雷锋), a familiar Party exemplar from the country’s past. A self-sacrificing People’s Liberation Army soldier, Lei Feng ostensibly dedicated himself, heart and soul, to the Chinese Communist Party and its vision.
The new Lei Feng wave comes as China celebrates both the 50th anniversary of Lei Feng’s death in 1962 and the 49th anniversary of his formal status as a Party exemplar — March 5 each year is “Study Lei Feng Day.”
For Party leaders, re-visiting the spirit of Lei Feng is apropos in 2012 not just because of the above-mentioned anniversaries, but because there has been increasing concern, and also discussion, inside China about what many see as a progressive moral slide. Chinese — or so the argument goes — have become too selfish as rapid economic change has thrust the country forward, ahead of its own core values.
What are those core values? In the Party’s view, they must be “socialist core values” (社会主义核心价值), distinct from the universal values trumpeted in the West, as best suited (they say) to China’s unique culture and national circumstances (国情).
An important part of the program of broadly-touted “cultural system reforms” coming out of the sixth plenum of the 17th Central Committee last October was the promotion of these “socialist core values.” And so — (I’m still channeling one rather dominant Party discourse here) — in the same way that institutions like Hollywood and the Western press expound and project a set of Western “universal values”, Chinese culture in the broadest sense must transmit a unique set of Chinese values, an amalgam of (often twisted) ancient traditions and Party traditions.
Enter Lei Feng.
In an announcement earlier this week, China’s Ministry of Education said it was launching a movement of Lei Feng studies through the country’s education system, in order to “deeply implement the overall demands of . . . the Sixth Plenum of the Party’s 17th Central Committee.”
Said the announcement:
Lei Feng is a paragon for the practice of socialist and communist thought and morals, a model to be studied by the whole nation. The Lei Feng spirit is an important part of the spirit of the Chinese people, evincing the traditional virtue of the Chinese people, and in tune with our era of social progress. [It] manifests the inherent advancedness of our Party, and is a vivid embodiment of the socialist core value system.
As noted on the front page of the overseas edition of the People’s Daily today, the opening day of the National People’s Congress (NPC), March 5, also marks the 49th anniversary of the study of the “spirit of Lei Feng.” According to his official diary, Lei Feng died in 1962, but it was in 1963, 49 years ago, that Lei Feng was introduced to the Chinese public through a concerted propaganda campaign.
The Lei Feng wave fits nicely with the upcoming NPC not just because the session is the first since “cultural reforms” were trumpeted last October, but because public morals and broader social governance issues are likely to take a front seat at the session.
For example, there is talk that one agenda to be discussed is the creation of what has been called a “Good Samaritan law” — in other words, legislation encouraging citizens to assist those in need by lowering the risk associated with doing so. Talk of such legislation was ignited late last year after video surfaced of a toddler in the city of Foshan run over twice in succession by passing vehicles and then ignored by passersby.
What has the Lei Feng wave actually looked like in mainland Chinese newspaper coverage? Here is a graph showing the results day by day in more than 200 Chinese newspapers since February 1.
In an article published in at least 12 Party-run newspapers today, “The Eternal Summons: Century Symphony for the Lei Feng Spirit” (永恒的召唤: 雷锋精神世纪交响曲), China’s official Xinhua News Agency likens China to a grand symphony, in which of course everyone has their part to play.
The allegorical structure, in which Lei Feng serves as “first violin” (第一小提琴手), accords well with Hu Jintao’s notion of “harmony” and the “harmonious society”, or hexie shehui (和谐社会). All Chinese must play their part, subordinating their own tunes to the greater music of national peace and purpose.
Lei Feng, the tireless hero sacrificing personal interests for the greater good of the Party and the people, is the exemplar for all players — the virtuoso, if you will, of self-effacing struggle.
Much of the Xinhua piece is structured as a call and answer, again extending the musical theme. Like this portion, which introduces the idea that each member of Chinese society should serve as a brick in the great edifice that is China:
We ask: Lei Feng, how can we follow you today in moving forward?
Lei Feng once said: tall buildings are built up one brick and one stone at a time, and we must be the bricks and the stone, doing our piecemeal bit.
In the process of building our spiritual edifice (精神大厦), if only you are willing, we can all, like Lei Feng, be a single brick, a single tile, or even a single grain of sand . . . In Nanjing, after the Sichuan earthquake, an old man named Xu Chao (徐超) who made his way by begging, even after donating 5 yuan searched for all the cash on his person and finally went to the bank to change [the smalls] into a 100-yuan bill to put in the donation box. For this old man, this was a “bare donation” sparing nothing.
True goodness cares not who you are, or what your status is, and it cannot be measured by how much money you pay out. So long as it arises from love deep in your soul, every single person can be Lei Feng.
Of course, many Chinese would argue, and have, that the country’s present woes — including rising social unrest, and what might best be characterized as a general social malaise — are not the product of a moral deficit or an insufficiency of “spirit.” Rather, they are the product of political, social and economic marginalization.
Xinhua’s romantic story about the beggar Xu Chao exposes an appalling blindness to underlying social issues. Unpack the host of questions surrounding the poor Xu and you might have an illuminating case study on social and political gaps, on institutional negligence. But here, the hot tears of ideological fervor blind the reporters to the obvious.
As incidents like that in Guangdong’s Wukan village have sufficiently shown, Chinese are not lacking in political spirit or pluck. They certainly don’t need a moral pep-a-rally or a Lei Feng love fest.
What Chinese arguably do need, and what many increasingly demand, are institutions that, rather than exacting romantic self-sacrifice, enable participation and afford protection, so that every citizen can be clear where they stand — and can do good without fear.