National celebrations of "Learn From Lei Feng Day" turned into
something of a public relations debacle after it was revealed that
many theaters struggled to sell even a single ticket to three films
about his life.
What would Lei Feng do?
It has been five decades since Mao Zedong decreed that the memory
of this altruistic, loyal soldier should be a shining star in the
constellation of Communist Party propaganda. But this week, on the
50th anniversary, came unmistakable signs that despite the Chinese
government's best efforts, Lei Feng's glow is fading.
National celebrations of "Learn From Lei Feng Day," which was
observed Tuesday, turned into something of a public relations
debacle after it was revealed that not one but three films about his
life -- which was cut short in 1962 by a falling telephone pole --
were thwarted by a distinctly capitalist weapon: the box office
In cities across the country, many theaters were unable to sell
even a single ticket, an embarrassment for the Communist Party,
which has been seeking to burnish its moral luster during the annual
sessions of China's rubber-stamp Parliament that are taking place in
That same day, the octogenarian photographer famous for taking
200 photos of Lei Feng suffered a fatal heart attack after giving
the last of more than 1,260 speeches honoring Lei Feng to a roomful
of military personnel in China's northeast. The Chinese news media
widely reported his dramatic death, featuring footage of the
photographer slumped in his chair, receiving CPR, and finally a
photograph of his corpse reverently draped by a Communist Party
The unwelcome developments in the Lei Feng narrative subverted
the carefully scripted onslaught of propaganda celebrating the
Communist role model's countless stage-managed achievements. By the
time Lei Feng died at 21, an array of government paparazzi had
captured him fixing military trucks, darning his fellow soldiers'
socks or diligently studying the works of Chairman Mao by
flashlight. After his death, a diary detailing his many selfless
acts was supposedly discovered and then swiftly disseminated among
the masses to be studied and, it was hoped, emulated.
As the Communist Party formally orchestrates a transfer of power
to a new generation of leaders, the nation has been focused on what
many say is society's declining morality -- highlighted by a
seemingly incessant flood of government corruption scandals replete
with bribes and mistresses.
Last month, a Beijing woman was caught using a silicon prosthesis
to pretend she was pregnant in order to fool subway riders into
giving her their seats. This week, a fresh round of outrage erupted
after news spread that a carjacker in the northeastern city of
Changchun had strangled a baby boy he had found in the stolen
vehicle and then had buried him in the snow. After thousands took to
the streets for a candlelight vigil, the authorities banned further
news coverage of the incident.
The evolving cult of Lei Feng, from the man to the myth, opens a
window into how the Communist Party has sought to adapt while
remaining firmly in control of a rapidly changing society. While Mao
used him as a tool for inspiring absolute political obedience,
propaganda officials have been struggling to rebrand Lei Feng and to
make him relevant to a nation where smartphones vastly outnumber
copies of Mao's Little Red Book.
Social media apps include "Micro Lei Feng," meant to inspire good
deeds among the technologically adept. The state news media have
been championing him as "a role model for Chinese society today as
the government is trying to improve the social moral environment."
But experts agree that the relentless portrayal of Lei Feng as a
panacea for China's social ills has rung hollow to those who believe
the party has lost its moral authority. …