The Suffocating “Lei Feng Spirit”

Does anyone remember Horst Wessel? A young Nazi murdered in 1930, he wrote the maudlin verse for what became the Horst Wessel Lied, second most popular of the Nazi anthems. Goebbel’s seized on his death, which he trumped up and turned into a political assassination, and transformed Wessel into the quintessential martyr. Typical Nazi bollocks.

Now, I am not saying there are any parallels, but anyone living in China will know the name of one Lei Feng. The newspapers are jammed with his photos, with stories about him, the English CCTV station airs breathless, gushy retellings of his greatness.

Here’s how a Singapore journal describes the phenomenon:

His boyish smile beams from the pages of China’s major newspapers. Lately, he has been on the television news every night. But he’s no pop star.

This is Lei Feng, a 1960s propaganda icon, a dead soldier hailed as a model of charity. Dusted off and updated, he’s being promoted as an example of cheerful self-sacrifice by communist leaders who worry economic reform has made Chinese selfish and fed social tensions.

Basically, like his predecessor Horst Wessel, the most interesting thing Lei Feng did was die early. (His highest goal, his raison d’etre, was, in his own words,to be a mere “screw in the machinery of the revolution.”) And like Wessel, Lei too left something behind that the propaganda machine could seize on and milk for decades to come. This was a diary, passages of which schoolchildren are forced to memorize even today. In it, Lei tells us of how happy he was to wash soldiers’ feet, do menial chores to help the Party, and generally to be of service to the revolution.

Does anyone remember Boxer, the loyal and hard-working horse in Orwell’s Animal Farm, whose maxim is “Whatever Napoleon says is right”? (Of course, Boxer’s reward for such devotion was to be sold to the glue factory.) Lei’s diary, the authenticity of which, outside of China, is questionable to say the least, is crammed with such slogans and lugubrious preachings on the importance of loyalty and service.

Okay, it’s not unusual for repressive societies to use such gimmicks to drum up support and strike an emotional chord in the hearts of their subjects. But the sheer scale of this thing boggles the mind. A veritable industry has sprung up around the myth of Lei Feng, complete with books and museums (yes, a museum) and TV shows.

Here’s how one reporter describes his attempted visit to the Lei Feng museum:

One of the promised attractions of the Lei Feng museum in Fushun was the abundance of relics: his simple clothes, copies of his famous diary, photographs of his noble deeds and the socks he darned as his friends slept. Alas, on my visit, the museum was closed. A new, more grandiose museum of granite and marble was being constructed on the same site.

All I saw was Lei Feng’s enormous head resting on the ground, his stony eyes blazing with revolutionary zeal at the surrounding slum of shabby concrete housing and unpaved streets filled with rubbish.

It’s everywhere. This is the type of Lei Feng “art” that we are subjected to:

For more examples of the curiously kitschy creations concocted to keep Lei’s memory alive in all of our hearts and minds, just go here.

The Discussion: 2 Comments

The cynicism expressed here is disgusting and misguided. You are the kind of leftist liberals who rightly disagree (so it seems) with Western corporatism and yet you find the large and powerful government of communists China objectionable. YOu praise the “tank man” of 1989 but fail to suggest why any of the protestors political views would really benefit China. I have talked with many Chinese students, both those who have emigrated to the west and those still living in CHina, and most hold very different opinions to yours and those of the popular Western media, such as Time Magaizne, for which you have so much affection. As for government propaganda, which you seem to despise based on your insult to the legacy o Lei Feng, who, though admittedly odd (probabyl as a result of his troubled childhood, including the murder of his parents by the Japanese invaders) was nonethelss a model of charity and diligence.
I have read the Time articles covering the evenyts of 1989 (as well as Time and other Western books about the event) and they are nothing but Western capitalist propaganda. Some examples: It is repeatedly stated that the protestors were “non violent” and “peaceful” yet there are numeorus images of students with stolen AK 47s, students burning APCs, and the bodies of soldiers beaten to death by students, etc. Also, in the Time book about the incident. there is a caption by a photo which shows students holding a bloodied soldier. The caption reads “students leading a bloodied soldier to safety” Yet, if one looks above the soldier’s head, one will see an arm holding a club bringing it down towards the soldier’s skull. And how, hight I ask, did the soldier get bloodied in the first place?
Propaganda is just what someone calls another’s political advertising. It can be not only a manipulative tool but also a means of educating. For example, not all Chinese propaganda poster campaigns were about killing counter revolutionaries. Many were designed to educate the people about hygiene or behavioural models or to promote diligence in study among students, etc.
The kind of leftisst who post here are those who complain about both the problem of imperialism and gloabilzation but also about the best defence against those evils: strong socialist governments with strongly united people and a strong army to back them up, for example, the People’s Republic of China. This is not the kind of leftism that improves the situation of the masses, it is an aimless bitterness which is ultimately useless in solving any social or political problems. Think up some realistic solutions to the problems you blame mostly on the communist government. ëÖ÷ϯÍòË꣡

January 10, 2004 @ 5:28 am | Comment

“and yet you find the large and powerful government of communists China objectionable”

Ha! I don’t care hoew large and powerful China’s government is. I care that it murders its citizens, imprisons and detains them at whim, arrests and kills them for posting on the Internet, propagandizes them in a style that would make Joseph Goebbels drool, etc., atc. Anyone who would put the words “Mao 4 ever” in their screen name loses all credibiliuty with me. Mao was a mass butcher and a true purveyor of genocide. Go ahead and worship him all you want, but I’m considering deleting your comment (though I probably won’t — I won’t stoop to the level of your hero).

“Think up some realistic solutions to the problems you blame mostly on the communist government”

Here you go: Create a system of transparency that makes corruption traceable and challengeable. Set up a judiciary with power and independence. Allow everyone to vote. Free everyone imprisoned without due process. I have many other ideas, too.

You want to make the Tiananmen protestors the villains, and on my site that won’t wash. Even if they were truly violent (and I mention in my posts that many were no angels) they did not deserve to be shot in the back. The fact that that is okay by you speaks volumes about your mentality. Go ahead and have Mao 4 ever. Maybe one day you’ll learn about little hiccups like the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward and the ensuing famines. And you know what? You’ll still love Mao, because you have surrendered your powers of critical thinking and given in to a personality cult. Your choice. Just remember, if we were in China and you wanted to attack the government the way you attack me, you’d simply disappear (not that anyone would mind or notice).

January 10, 2004 @ 8:23 am | Comment

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