Lei Feng in the age of the microblog

March 5, 2012 is the 50th anniversary of the death of Lei Feng, a legendary PLA soldier who was devoted to Chairman Mao and selflessly serving the people. He is said to have died on March 5, 1962; in 1963 he became the subject of a nationwide propaganda campaign “Learn from Comrade Lei Feng” (向雷锋同志学习).

Since then, Comrade Lei Feng is periodically hauled out as an exemplar of good old fashioned socialist morality. This year is no exception. In fact, the nice round number of the 50th anniversary combined with a political atmosphere of uncertainty and rumored faction fighting in the run-up to the National People’s Congress ‘Two Meetings” seem to have brought an emphasis on Lei Feng in the state and commercial media not seen for decades.

On March 3, China Digital Times published an instruction they say comes from the Central Publicity (née Propaganda) Department (emphasis added, my translation):

During the “Two Meetings” don’t interview or report on any suddenly breaking events. Don’t hype the Wang Lijun case. Don’t question reform of the health system, the construciton of guaranteed housing, food safety etc. Keep a frim grip on reporting about the Anhui girl whose face was disfigured [by the son of an official, the Henan police stabbing, the Hebei Baoding case, and the Zhejiang Wu Ying case. Don’t report on petitioners. Increase the scope of Lei Feng propaganda.

You can see the effects of the propaganda campaign on Sina’s Lei Feng special section, or the Lei Feng hot topic on Weibo. Perhaps more amusing is the Lei Feng page on CCTV’s English website, titled China Strength.

One of the gems from the CCTV site is in this article:

China’s icon of altruism answers man’s greatest questions

Lei Feng, the late Chinese icon of altruism, has provided the perfect answer to the questions on the meaning of life that have long puzzled the human race, according to an op-ed authored by Li Congjun, president of Xinhua News Agency.

“Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?”

These questions, raised by french Post-Impressionist artist Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), are widely considered to represent the human race’s deepest meditations on the meaning of life.

According to the article, elite members of the human race, including Russian writer Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), the ancient Chinese poets Qu Yuan and Chen Zi’ang, who both wrote more than 1,000 years ago, asked similar questions, but never found the answer.
“Lei Feng, an ordinary soldier, has given a perfect answer,” the lengthy article maintained.

But not everyone is convinced. Hu Xijin, editor of the Global Times, a newspaper that is very sympathetic to the Chinese government’s view of the world, posted this spoof image to his Weibo microblog; it shows two icons of very different political persuasions photoshopped into Lei Feng images — rebel artist Ai Weiwei, and nationalist professor “Hong Kongers are dogs” Kong Qingdong.

Lei Feng, Ai Weiwei and Kong Qingdong
Lei Feng, Ai Weiwei and Kong Qingdong

Hu Xijin commented on the spoof image (in translation):

The louder the volume of the government campaign to study Lei Feng, the more such spoofs will be enthusiastically circulated online. This is the sigh-inducing balance of contemporary China’s public debate. When I see such Photoshop images, my heart just feels uncomfortable. But I know that the fact that such photographs appear is a sign of China’s progress. Making everything appear ugly is not just a way of thinking but has become a way of existing. Its importance to China is like that of the waste water pipes and sewers that even a city of light cannot do without.

At the time of writing, Hu Xijin’s post had attracted 1,394 comments and been forwarded 2,101 times. Some comments are supportive of Hu, but many are fiercely critical. The most recent comment is currently “If you compared the government’s speeches to a stinking sewer, it would show that you have made a lot of progress…


Lei Feng timeline 2006 – 2012

Danwei has a long tradition of reporting on Lei Feng. It’s worth reviewing previous coverage here and elsewhere to understand some of the uses and abuses of the Lei Feng story over the past six years:

Bo Xilai quotes “In Memory of Norman Bethune” from memory March 2011
In an award ceremony for doctors and healt care workers from Chongqing, Bo Xilai quoted from Mao’s article “In Memory of Norman Bethune” and told stories from Lei Feng’s life.

Kneel before Lei Feng March 2010
Lei Feng Day, March 5, is a time for the mainstream media to stage gimmicky stunts that somehow illustrate the decline of the Lei Feng Spirit of selfless dedication in contemporary society.

The Chongqing Economic Times sent a reporter out to help people at the local train station, where he discovered that people today are suspicious of strangers who offer them unwanted assistance.

Lei Feng, serving the people in the 21st Century March 2010
A spoof Lei Feng microblog, and a series of photographs by artist Dai Xiang (戴翔) of Lei Feng in contemporary China, doing good deeds such as removing small advertisements posted to telegraph poles, reading the works of Mao Zedong in a McDonalds restaurant etc. See also Beijing Today for a gallery of Dai Xiang photos, or Dai Xiang’s blog.

Lei Feng and 60th anniversary fashion September 2009
The front page of Nanjing’s Modern Express looks forward to that years October 1 60th anniversary celebrations of the founding of the People’s Republic with an image of a Lei Feng poster, part of a “60 year fashion tour”.

Lei Feng heritage for the whole world March 2009
March 5 is Lei Feng Day, a day set aside to celebrate the life of the PLA soldier who became a model for selflessness and obedience after his untimely death in 1962.

Even with stories about the NPC and CPPCC sessions filling up newspaper pages this week, the media has still found time to report on “living Lei Fengs” doing good works in various communities, and to complain that people no longer celebrate Lei Feng Day like they used to.

To make sure that Lei Feng stays alive in the hearts of the Chinese people, CPPCC member Liu Jianglong, has submitted a proposal suggesting that the government apply for UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage status for the “Lei Feng Spirit.”

45 years of Lei Feng March 2008 (on Jottings from the Granite Studio)
On this date in 1963, Mao Zedong launched the “Learn from Lei Feng” campaign. The most important lesson I’ve learned from Lei Feng is to look out for fallingtelephone poles, but maybe I’m not the target audience

Another year, another Lei Feng March 2007
Lei Feng remembrance day passed relatively quietly this year. A spate of editorials appeared last week agonizing over a recent survey that found a surprising number of school-children to be completely ignorant about the man and his day (see below), but the ongoing legislative sessions pushed unrelated political campaigns into the background.

Lei Feng condoms (on Asia Sentinel) November 2006
A condom factory in Ningbo markets gift packages of condoms decorated with Lei Feng iconography.

You can’t be Lei Feng all the time September 2006
Cosmetology students offering free haircuts in a public park in Jiaozuo, Henan Province, were chased off the “Young Volunteers Plaza” by park management who suspected that they were merely using the park as a free practice ground…

The Jiaozuo Forestry Department’s statement about the incident was: “You can only come here to learn from Lei Feng when the government organizes you to do so. If they don’t organize you to learn from Lei Feng then you can’t come. Learning from Lei Feng is not something you can do anytime you wish.”

A precis of the book Lei Feng Spirit by Shi Yonggang April 2006
There is an excerpt of the book here
Lei Feng Spirit is really the biography of “Lei Feng” the icon – it could easily have been called “Manufacturing the Lei Feng Spirit.” It doesn’t stray from the orthodox history, however, but rather explains how that orthodox history arose. The heralded trove of photographs of Lei Feng is presented in many cases as a behind-the-scenes look how the famous imagess were staged – seven shots of Lei Feng polishing a truck, for example, are accompanied by text that explains how Lei Feng’s own Soviet truck was swapped for a domestic Jiefang.

The notes are often gently tongue-in-cheek, as in a caption to one photo reading, “The creator is unknown, but it probably was created later for propaganda use, combining Lei Feng’s head image with the Young Pioneers logo, since Lei Feng at that time was probably not so precocious as to be able to take such a photo himself.”

Even further afield is the book’s final chapter, “Post-popular Lei Feng,” brings together Xue Cun, Game Boy decals, and online gaming, and reproduces in its entirety an online essay, “1962: Lei Feng vs. Marilyn Monroe.” Lei Feng Spirit concludes with an appendix comparing the Fengster, John Lennon, and Bruce Lee, all of whom were born in 1940 and died prematurely.

Lei Feng to star in Internet game March 2006
A new game, “Learning from Comrade Lei Feng,” claims that its most distinguishing departure from its peers lies in a theme which encourages players to live a thrifty life and offer help when needed, rather than promoting sheer killing and bloodshed…

…Pedestrians may say dirty words, trample upon grass, spit or litter on the road or break traffic rules and the players’ tasks are to stop these bad habits or deeds while helping old men cross the street…

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