China Adopts New Hero -- A Capitalist

April 02, 1995|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Beijing Bureau of The Sun

BEIJING -- When China's Maoist leaders wanted the masses to work harder, they used to order people to emulate a soldier named Lei Feng, who spent his days doing good deeds and his nights recording them in a secret diary.

Now, in the capitalist '90s, China's propaganda mill has produced a role model who is less Spartan but still a devoted Maoist. He is Li Shuangliang, a 72-year-old retiree who has become a celebrity and earned a lot of perks by getting rid of a pile of slag and turning a profit at the same time.

He's not exactly the selfless soldier of 30 years ago who covertly washed his comrades' socks, but Mr. Li has become part of the central government's latest attempt to inject some morality into what it views as an increasingly amoral and confused population.

With China more open than ever to the outside world, leaders fear that their subjects are becoming too Westernized and, consequently, too decadent.

"We should oppose money-worship, ultra-individualism and decadent lifestyles," said Premier Li Peng in his recent state-of-the-nation address to China's Parliament.

To combat these evil influences, Premier Li held up Mr. Li (no relation) and seven other "national heroes and model workers." The eight, Premier Li said, are products of China's 17-year program of modernization and economic reform. Later this year, the central government will convene a national conference "in order to praise their achievements and encourage such healthy trends."

The glorification of these heroes -- who include an intensely faithful housewife, a prolific inventor and a courageous policeman -- is part of the government's campaign to restore a bit more Communist ideology in daily life.

Schools are adding courses in socialism, while the army is beefing up its indoctrination programs, all in the belief that a well-indoctrinated people will be a docile one when bedridden top leader Deng Xiaoping passes from the scene.

So who exactly gets to be the subject of such state-mandated hero worship?

In Beijing to attend the National People's Congress this month, Mr. Li turned out to be a more complex figure than the do-gooder described in the premier's speech.

In fact, the real Mr. Li is only partially a product of the reforms that began in the late 1970s. His economics may be free market, but his politics are a throwback to the era of Chairman Mao Tse-tung.

Mr. Li started his career as a hero in the 1950s when he was voted a model worker in his factory. Later, he became a district then a provincial model worker.

In 1989, he became a national model worker and two years ago joined his province's delegation to the National People's Congress, where he was praised in Premier Li's nationally publicized speech.

His vocabulary is full of Maoist-era rhetoric. He took on the task that made him famous -- ridding his old employer of a slag heap -- after contemplating Chairman Mao Tse-tung's words: "We must depend on the masses when we face problems."

The problem he solved was that his employer of 44 years, Taiyuan Steel Co., was inundated with 10 million cubic meters of slag, the by-product of the steel mill's 50 years of production. By 1983, when Mr. Li retired from Taiyuan, the company was running out of space to dump the slag.

Feeling a sense of allegiance to Taiyuan ("Taiyuan gave me everything. Taiyuan's difficulty is our difficulty"), Mr. Li set out to solve the problem.

Waste disposal companies wanted the equivalent of $750,000 to clear away the muck, a significant amount of money for one of China's money-losing, state-owned enterprises.

Then Mr. Li made a capitalist discovery: The slag contained iron, about $9 million worth at market prices. He quickly struck a deal with Taiyuan Steel: Give me exclusive rights to the slag and I'll sell you the iron at half the price.

After paying for the cleanup, his venture has cleared more than $3.5 million. He was offered a 10 percent profit, but he spent that money on beautifying the area, which now boasts grass, trees and a little pavilion.

The refusal to keep the profits for himself was a masterstroke, helping to make him a national model worker and guaranteeing him a bevy of perks, such as a new two-story house, a chauffeur-driven car and a $3,500 prize.

The project also made Mr. Li a celebrity.

He almost seems offended when asked if he has met important leaders, whipping out a dog-eared photo album that displays pictures of himself with almost every top leader.

Taiyuan Steel has also produced a booklet showcasing his exploits. On the cover is Mr. Li talking to President Jiang Zemin. Inside is a piece of Mr. Jiang's calligraphy urging people to "Learn from Comrade Li Shuangliang's spirit of devoting himself wholeheartedly as a master of the working class for the country . . ." -- echoing Chairman Mao's words of 33 years ago to study the soldier Lei Feng.

When asked if model workers aren't a bit anachronistic in a China where Lei Feng, the diligent soldier, has long been ridiculed as a well-meaning dolt, Mr. Li strongly disagrees.

"The country can learn from me. It's a good thing to learn from a good rather than a bad person," he said. And the perks, of course, will inspire "common workers to gain such high honor."

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