Maoist legend Lei Feng makes a new comeback

March 12, 1991|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau of The Sun

BEIJING -- Beijing residents often joke that Lei Feng must not have a registration card allowing him to live in the capital -- because, though he can be counted on to show up here in March, he usually is gone by April.

The legend of Lei Feng -- the perhaps apocryphal People's Liberation Army (PLA) soldier renowned for his selfless do-goodism in the name of Chinese communism in the early 1960s -- was once again rolled out here and across much of China in a big way last week.

Squads of soldiers massed in front of the Beijing train station to learn from his example. Thousands of students swept the streets and visited the homes of the elderly. Workers of all stripes rallied to the tune of improving their on-the-job service.

But last weekend, a month-long Beijing museum exhibit recounting Lei Feng's sacrifices for others was notably devoid of Chinese visitors, except for one middle-aged woman from the east coast city of Dalian who had brought her young son to see "how people do good things."

By contrast, the opening of a new French bakery a block away drew a healthy crowd of excited onlookers. "Oh yes, people study Lei Feng," said a 25-year-old office worker waiting to buy a croissant. "But then they do what they want."

Added a nearby man in his 40s: "Many people nowadays feel that Lei Feng is outdated and useless."

These sentiments seem to account for the new urgency to the government's propaganda campaign over the last 28 years to encourage its citizens to emulate the deceased PLA squad leader.

Mao Tse-tung first exhorted the Chinese people to study Lei Feng's good deeds on March 5, 1963, the year after the 22-year-old is said to have died when a truck knocked a utility pole onto his head.

Soldier Lei woke up every day with a socialist song in his heart and seemingly spent every waking moment lending a hand to his comrades -- washing and sewing their clothes, helping peasants work their fields and teaching small children about communism.

His deeds, suspiciously well-documented by on-the-scene photographs, were first offered as an example of the close relations between the army and China's masses and then expanded to moral lessons in patriotism, devotion and self-denial for all to follow. Annual campaigns became standard practice.

But during the decade of fast-paced social and economic changes that followed China's reopening to the world in the late 1970s, Lei Feng seemed more and more to become a forgotten figure from the Maoist past.

But the brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protests here in 1989 and the subsequent surge in the power of conservatives and the military within China's ruling coalition set the stage for Lei Feng's sharp resurrection last March.

Although Lei Feng's new vigor is believed to stem directly from the hands of top PLA propagandists seeking to enhance the image of an army widely condemned for killing the 1989 demonstrators, the latest campaign appears more broadly aimed at what many Chinese now perceive as the most pervasive ill in the country's civilian psyche.

"With reform and opening to the outside world . . . the concept that there is no need to study Lei Feng, when money can do everything, has come to life," advised People's Daily, China's leading newspaper. "This spiritual decline among some people made chasing money the sole purpose of their life. For money, some people even betray their personality and national honor or commit crimes."

Parts of this line of logic, indeed, seem to resonate with the spiritual longings of many in China's deeply fragmented society.

"Things are more complex now. There's corruption and people don't help each other so much," said the sole Chinese visitor observed at the Lei Feng exhibit the other morning. "People want things to be simpler. They really do want people to love each other."

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