Lei Feng’s Specter Still Hovers Over Mainland China
Communist propaganda heroes and their political purpose, then and now.
There are certain dates that people prefer to forget, but political circumstances force them to remember. March 5 is such a day. It is the death-day of Joseph Stalin, and although responsible for the calamity of millions of Russians, Stalin’s admirers still laid flowers on his tomb at the Red Square during the 60th anniversary of his death. Among those present this year was the head of Russia’s Communist Party, Gunnady Zyuganov. Experts prognosticate, as far as there is no de-Stalinization process occurring, nor reflection of modern history in Russia, that many Russians will not be able to get rid of their illusions and continue to believe Stalin was the savior of their country.
- During the Cultural Revolution, people were sentenced to death or outright murdered because of one wrong sentence. In China today writers do not lose their lives over their poems or articles; however, they are jailed for years. My friend Liu Xiaobo for example will stay in prison till 2020; even winning the Nobel Peace Prize could not help him. In prison those lucky enough not to be sentenced to hard labor play “blind chess” to kill time AND TO TRAIN THE BRAIN NOT TO RUST. Freedom of expression is still a luxury in China. The firewall is everywhere, yet words can fly above it and so can our thoughts. My column, like the blind chess played by prisoners, is an exercise to keep our brains from rusting and the situation in China from indifference.
- Tienchi Martin-Liao is the president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center. Previously she worked at the Institute for Asian Affairs in Hamburg, Germany, and lectured at the Ruhr-University Bochum from 1985 to 1991. She became head of the Richard-Wilhelm Research Center for Translation in 1991 until she took a job in 2001 as director of the Laogai Research Foundation (LRF) to work on human rights issues. She was at LRF until 2009. Martin-Liao has served as deputy director of the affiliated China Information Center and was responsible for updating the Laogai Handbook and working on the Black Series, autobiographies of Chinese political prisoners and other human rights books. She was elected president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center in October 2009 and has daily contact with online journalists in China.
March 5 also has some special meaning for the mainland Chinese. Half a century ago, on this day Mao Zedong wrote the sentence “Follow the example of comrade Lei Feng,” to baptize young Liberation Army soldiers.
Lei Feng (1940-1962) was an orphan from Hu’nan Province, who joined the Army at the age of 20 and died in an accident at 22. According to the official lore, after Lei’s death, people found his diary, which contained the passionate monologue of a youngster who had done many selfless, good deeds. But most importantly, the texts exposed his unconditional love and loyalty to the Communist Party of China and Chairman Mao.
The discovery of the diary coincided with a time when Mao’s authority was suffering enormously under the policies of the Big Leap Forward. After three years of famine that resulted in millions of deaths, Mao’s image and morals were severely damaged. The country slowly revived from the catastrophe only through Liu Shaoqi’s mild adjustment policy. Consequently, it was the proper moment to set up a legendary figure to divert the people’s attention. Right at this time Lei Feng and his diary emerged out of thin air and fit the pattern that the government sought—an orphan from Mao’s home province, a diligent worker, patriotic soldier, and obedient Maoist pupil. Feng’s legacy served as a perfect model for his compatriots to emulate. Thus, the propaganda machinery was turned on full-power to create a new revolutionary hero. Indeed, within a short time, Lei Feng became a posthumous national icon.
Despite his iconic status, there are several disputes about the credibility of Lei Feng’s existence, especially concerning his diary. Some believe General Lin Biao was working behind the scenes to re-establish Mao’s scraped image.
In their book, Sozialistische Helden: Eine Kulturgeschichte der Propagandafiguren (Socialist Heroes: A Cultural History of Propaganda Figures), historians Silke Satjukow and Rainer Gries explain that whether or not the stories about the heroes are true is besides the point. Heroic figures like Lei Feng were instruments of propaganda and served a political purpose.
Heroic icons carry similar influence in other countries. For example, in the Soviet Union, the model worker, Alexey Stakhanov (1906-1977) became a celebrity in his 30s. Even Time had a cover story about him in 1935. In this case, the peasant son had supposedly dug 102 tons of coal in six hours despite the poorly equipped coal mines. His heroic achievement inspired the Russian workers and initiated the so-called Stakhanovite movement, which accelerated coal productivity. In order to stimulate the workers’ enthusiasm, most of the socialist country found their stimulator in Adolf Hennecke (1905-1975), a coal miner and later a Central Committee-member of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED). The activist-movement was named after him.
The same phenomenon occurs with the creation of Mateusz Bierkut, a fictional Polish hero also known as the “man of marble.” Like Stakhanov, Bierkut inspired many of his countrymen via his over-achieving productivity.
However, in China, the consequence of the “Follow the example of comrade Lei Feng” movement is inestimable. Lei Feng’s message of “fear neither hardship nor death” has influenced generations of young people. Children of all ages learn that uncle Lei Feng was a selfless, courageous soldier who devoted his life to the party and Chairman Mao. For a very long time, the utmost wish of a young Chinese child was to become a second Lei Feng to serve the beloved motherland.
Now that the former Warsaw-Pact countries have abandoned the socialist system, their legendary heroes have also withdrawn from the stage of history. In today’s China, hardly a soul in the power center of Beijing believes in communism, yet the new rulers reluctantly cling to the old political assets. In this way, Lei Feng’s specter still hovers over mainland China. On this year’s “Learn from Lei Feng Day” the authority spent a huge amount of money to launch commemorations and exhibitions with pictures, documents, and sound displays in many places. A special Lei Feng website was even created.
Additionally, a film, Young Lei Feng, was produced to refresh the people’s memory of China’s national hero. On March 5, the film premiered in different cities. Yet, as we say, “hot face sticks to cold ass,”* and the manipulated political enthusiasm was met with zero interest from most citizens. In some cinemas, like in Nanking and Taiyuan, the film had to be removed from the program because not a single ticket was sold.
The dramatic events of March 5 continued with another incident that shocked the public and embarrassed the authorities. Zhang Jun, the 82 year-old former photographer of Lei Feng, also used to work at the Department of Politics in Shenyang Military Zone as a propaganda cadre. In 1960, Zhang allegedly began to take pictures of Feng, the young recruited soldier. After Lei became the paragon of the country, Zhang initiated countless events in his honor, and in the past five decades there have been over 320 picture exhibitions and over 1260 speeches on Feng. Disappointed that the public had zero interest in the recent film, Zhang agreed to participate in the Lei Feng commemoration organized by the military, despite his fragile age and heath. In his agitated speech, Zhang said: “Although I am ancient, I want to devote my limited life to the unlimited great cause to ‘retain Lei Feng.’” After that sentence, Zhang dropped dead onstage.
We do not know whether Mr. Zhang will posthumously receive a medal for his selfless contribution to the great revolutionary cause; however, during his lifetime he has allegedly published more than 20,000 Lei Feng pictures.
Although most of them are manipulated fakes, the quantity is indeed impressive. Well, at the end of the day the moral of the tragedy is: To retain the dead, one has to stay alive. It’s a pity that it’s too late for Mr. Zhang.
*Beijing slang used to refer to an unrequited relationship.