from Asia Unbound

China’s March Madness—Not Jeremy Lin but Lei Feng

A portrait of Chinese national folk-hero, Lei Feng looks out over a busy intersection in a central Beijing shopping district in June of 1998.

March 5, 2012

A portrait of Chinese national folk-hero, Lei Feng looks out over a busy intersection in a central Beijing shopping district in June of 1998.
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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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In late February, New York-based Global Times writer Rong Xiaoqing published a piece on Jeremy Lin and the “Hunger for Heroes in the U.S.” In her piece, Rong argues that the United States—and democracy more broadly—favors the hero-centered narrative because it needs strong hands “to hold the wheel steady” and “to help avoid endless arguments at times of crisis.” According to Rong, “Americans badly need new superheroes.”

I don’t disagree with Rong that Americans like their heroes, but I don’t think that it has anything to do with being American or having a democratic form of government. All cultures appreciate the extraordinary accomplishments of individuals whether in sports or science or feats of bravery. In fact, China itself is in the midst of promoting its own home-grown hero: Lei Feng.

While many outside China are focused on 2012 as the onset of the transition to the fifth generation of Chinese leaders, within China, the year has a secondary significance. It is the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Lei Feng. A PLA soldier who died at the age of twenty-two when a pole struck him on the head, Lei Feng was immortalized by Mao Zedong in the campaign, “Learn from Comrade Lei Feng.” In the aftermath of his death, Lei became renowned for his selflessness, commitment to others, and devotion to Mao and the Communist Party.

Over the years, however, Lei has lost some of his luster. There is a saying on the Internet in China: “The post-1970’s generation learned from Lei Feng, the post-1980’s generation revolted against Lei Feng, and the post-1990’s generation has forgotten about Lei Feng.” Indeed, Lei Feng skeptics abound. Not everyone is convinced that Lei could have accomplished everything attributed to him, and some even doubt his existence. As one doubter noted, “From 1958—1962, the young man (he would have been eighteen when he started writing) composed 330 diary entries, twelve articles, eighteen speeches, thirty poems, three novels and nine pieces of prose. Which he completed while helping the needy, working in a steel mill, and joining the army, all without attracting any acclaim during his life.”

Beijing has stood firm against such a diminution of Lei’s value. In advance of the anniversary of his death on March 5th, the Ministry of Education is underscoring the value of Lei, calling for a campaign in which students of all ages will embark on a new program “to carry forward the spirit of Lei Feng.” Over the course of that week, schools will organize service activities and students will be encouraged to establish Lei Feng Spirit Research Societies. In a nod to current times, there is already a Lei Feng online video game, in which players can advance by, among other things, mending socks. And of course, there are already Lei Feng students, a Lei Feng village, and cups and T-shirts promoting his image.

Still, there is recognition within broader society that more contemporary role models are also needed. A year ago on the anniversary of Lei’s death, the China Daily published a piece, “Changing Role Models In China,” which advanced an alternative set of role models, including Yu Minhong, who founded the $3.5 billion NASDAQ listed company, New Oriental Education and Technology Group (the company focuses on English instruction), the pianist Lang Lang, the blogger Han Han, the pop star Li Yuchun, Jack Ma, the Chairman of Alibaba group, and Lee Kai-fu, who heads Innovation Works.

The China Daily discussion of Chinese role models as well as Beijing’s promotion of Lei Feng speaks to an understanding of the human desire to witness and appreciate extraordinary accomplishment in the form of heroes. As the China Daily piece intimates, however, with globalization and the Internet, heroes can no longer be constructed by the Communist Party. Choice is ever more a part of life in China, and on the fiftieth anniversary of Lei Feng’s death, it will be interesting to see whom the Chinese people choose as heroes for themselves.

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