Listen to this article
In China’s communist pantheon perhaps nobody is as admired as Lei Feng, the humble selfless model soldier who mended his comrades’ socks while they slept and never once asked for recognition. After devoting himself completely to serving the nation and the party, comrade Lei Feng died in 1962 at the age of 21 when a reversing truck he was directing struck a pole that fell and killed him. Or so the legend goes. There are serious doubts over whether Lei Feng even existed and, if he did, it is almost certain that his heroic good deeds sprang straight from the fertile minds in the central propaganda department. A year after his death, Lei Feng’s “diary” was published in the first of many “learn from Lei Feng” campaigns.
This voluminous tome was stuffed full of the young soldier’s admiration for Chairman Mao Zedong, his revolutionary ardour and his selfless acts – things like helping old ladies across the road and doing other people’s laundry. The main reason for creating such a goody-goody was to burnish Mao’s tarnished image in the wake of his disastrous Great Leap Forward but it also served the purpose of promoting “morality”, as defined by the party. In recent decades Lei Feng’s exploits and the cult that surrounded him have become a source of scorn and derision across China. Which makes you wonder what exactly the propaganda authorities were thinking when they launched a new “learn from Lei Feng” campaign earlier this month to mark the 50th anniversary of his death. State media have been filled with terribly earnest panegyrics on him and people who follow his example.
The rationale seems to be that the party’s growing crisis of legitimacy and a lack of morality in society can only be tackled with the trusty brands of the past. But surely holding up a fictional figure and lauding his fictional deeds to promote moral rectitude is bound to backfire.
My grandaddy Mao
He may not have Lei Feng’s chiselled jaw but Mao Xinyu, the only officially recognised living grandson of Mao Zedong, is also fired up with revolutionary zeal these days.
The youngest ever person to be named a Major General in the People’s Liberation Army, the younger Mao is even more the object of scorn than the myth of Lei Feng. With his rotund frame, rumpled uniform and habit of starting every sentence with “My grandaddy said …” he is mocked on the internet and even in the odd media report.
In an interview with the FT last year, General Mao, 42, was constantly interrupted by his minders, who treated him like a small child and kept adjusting his clothes in a vain attempt to make him more photogenic.
Unlike other “princelings”, as the children of revolutionary heroes are known, General Mao has never been accused of using his pedigree to advance his business interests. On the contrary, he is considered incapable of doing much of anything besides memorising a few tracts of his grandfather’s famous quotes, something that every Chinese child in the 1960s and 1970s could do.
His childlike calligraphy is a source of huge amusement, with commentators on the internet asking whether he wrote the characters using his foot or his hand.
One of the most popular online introductions of General Mao juxtaposes his picture with the great-grandchildren of Chiang Kai-shek, the Nationalist Generalissimo who lost the civil war to Mao in 1949.
Their fashion model good looks, advanced degrees from top US schools and outstanding careers compare pretty favourably to General Mao. But then many people point out that at least he’s not running the entire country like a certain other grandson by the name of Kim in a nearby communist ally.
A model banker
Although nobody pays much attention any more, the propaganda ritual of choosing model workers is alive and well in China today.
But gone are the days when “Iron Man Wang Jianxi” (China’s answer to Aleksei Stakhanov) was rewarded for digging a thousand oil wells in China’s bitter northeast.
Today’s model workers are far more prosaic and would be unrecognisable to old Grandpa Mao, who must be spinning in his crystal sarcophagus at the sight of bankers and commercial lawyers receiving the once hallowed prize.