The Party and Its Waning Star ; Chinese Communist Icon Loses Luster for Society Disenchanted by Scandals

By Levin, Dan | International Herald Tribune, March 9, 2013 | Go to article overview

The Party and Its Waning Star ; Chinese Communist Icon Loses Luster for Society Disenchanted by Scandals


Levin, Dan, International Herald Tribune


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 bomb.

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 the capital.

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 flag.

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. …

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