Paradigms for everyman Models: In modernizing China, the Communist ideal of the selfless worker endures.

September 16, 1997|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING -- From the reaction of the Chinese press yesterday, you would have thought Li Suli was a major film star and not, as she repeatedly described herself, "just an ordinary bus conductor."

When she appeared on stage for a news conference in a powder-blue suit and fashionably sculpted hairdo, television cameramen and photographers mobbed her like paparazzi.

In introducing Li to scattered applause, Communist Party spokesman Xu Guangchun said: "She has, through her work, brought warmth to the people."

Li, 37, is conductor on the No. 21 bus route of the Beijing Industry Communications General Co. and that peculiar creature communism: the "model worker."

Yesterday, in the midst of its most important meeting in years -- its 15th Congress -- China's Communist Party trotted out Li and four other model workers for a news conference with reporters from around the globe.

Model workers -- part everyman, part walking parable -- are plucked by the party from daily life to instruct people on how they should conduct themselves. Lionized by the state-run media -- there is even a model worker beat -- these idealized figures must exhibit industry, selflessness, kindness and, of course, loyalty to the party.

"They are heroes of the times," said Xu, a spokesman for the twice-a-decade meeting in which the party lays out policy and chooses its leaders. "In them, you can see the fine, traditional virtues of the Chinese people."

Joining Li Suli on the rostrum were Li Guo'an, a military engineer credited with drilling more than 300 wells in the Gobi Desert; Xu Hu, a Shanghai plumber who works nights; Wang Qimin, an engineer in oil exploration; and Wu Jinyin, a lifelong party official in Henan province.

Like most Chinese news conferences, yesterday's was carefully rehearsed and many of the answers had all the spontaneity of a Miss America Pageant.

"I will provide services to the people through my patience and my enthusiasm," said Li, who often prefaced her responses with the phrase, "I'm an ordinary member of the Communist Party and an ordinary bus conductor. "

(Li, for the record, did not arrive at the news conference as she might have ordinarily -- by bus. Instead, she came by black Audi -- the signature sedan of the Chinese government.)

Asked about the call by party General Secretary Jiang Zemin for the country's failing state-owned enterprises to sell more stocks, Wang, 60, the oil engineer, said: "I think the new measures represent emancipation of the mind."

And when queried on what he might say if one of his clients brought up the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, Xu, the 40-year-old plumber, said: "With regard to the June 4th issue, I think our government has already well handled this one. If the residents do not ask a question of me, I will mainly concentrate on my work and will not participate in the discussion."

It is that kind of "work conscientiously for others and ask no questions" mentality that Mao Tse-tung tried to espouse when he canonized the granddaddy of model workers, Lei Feng, a driver in the People's Liberation Army.

Lei, who died in 1962 when he was struck on the head by a tele- phone pole, is a household name in China. A do-gooder `f nonpareil, he is credited with everything from secretly washing the clothes of his comrades and giving up his seat on trains to cleaning up after dinner and distributing his savings to flood-stricken peasants.

"Learn from Comrade Lei Feng," wrote Mao, who called the worker-saint a "rustless screw" in the communist machine.

In today's China, an increasingly sophisticated, capitalistic society where more and more people are working for themselves and not the state, model workers seem a bit quaint and anachronistic. In fact, for years many have viewed Lei Feng as a well-meaning dolt.

But, if today's model workers suffer ridicule, virtue has its rewards. At the end of the news conference, Li Suli walked to the edge of the stage as a crowd of photographers from Asia to America snapped her picture and reporters asked questions.

Not bad for an ordinary bus conductor.

Pub Date: 9/16/97

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