Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Friday, March 15, 2013

Trying to keep the barn door open

I keep thinking there are appropriate clichés for introducing this topic, but I can't put my finger on any of them. This story sounds like a case of struggling to keep the barn door open when the horse is back in the stall and fast asleep.

You probably have to be a really old guy like me and those in charge of The Communist Party's propaganda section to remember Lei Feng. Even though Chairman Mao urged everyone to "learn from Lei Feng."

Lei Feng was a mythical character who became a hero during the Cultural Revolution years after he'd died. Well, years after he was said to have died. It's hard to believe he ever really lived.

Lei Feng was said to have been a PLA private who never did anything spectacular. But when Mao told people to learn from him, hundreds of photographs of him showed up in the Chinese media.

Fifty years down the road, China's changed. Anyone who acted like Lei Feng today would be even more ridiculed than Lei Feng was in the 1960s.

Lei Feng teaches reading
This was the guy who helped old ladies across the street, who gave his savings to the Party, who volunteered on his day off to work on a construction project that was behind schedule, who rebuilt truck parts rather than requisition new ones, and who volunteered to teach grade schoolers patriotic behavior.

What's the purpose of role models like this? (Like George Washington in the mythical cherry tree episode? Like Abe Lincoln in the mythical rail spiltting?) Why would anyone want to keep promoting a role model that is so out of character with "socialism with Chinese characteristics?" Is this a sign of the rulers' inertia as opposed to the cultural change in China?

In China, Cinematic Flops Suggest Fading of an Icon
It has been five decades since Mao Zedong decreed that the altruistic, loyal soldier Lei Feng should be a shining star in the Communist Party’s constellation of propaganda heroes. But last week, on the 50th anniversary of that proclamation, 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 last Tuesday, turned into something of a public relations debacle after the party icon’s celluloid resurrection in not one but three films about his life was thwarted by a distinctly capitalist weapon: the box office bomb…

As the Communist Party formally orchestrates a transfer of power to a new generation of leaders, the nation has been fixated on what many say is society’s declining morality, highlighted by a seemingly incessant flood of government corruption scandals replete with bribes and mistresses…

The evolving cult of Lei Feng — from the man to the myth — opens a window into how the Communist Party has sought to adapt ideologically 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 make him relevant…

At a time when China’s incoming president, Xi Jinping, has begun a highly publicized campaign against corruption that cynics say is largely cosmetic, many wonder whether Lei Feng the saint should be buried once and for all. For them, the box office disaster of the Lei Feng-themed films is the nail in the coffin…

The government is instead resorting to old-school tactics to fill theaters. The State Administration of Radio, Film and Television has ordered film studios and cinemas to better promote the films and has exhorted party cadres to organize group viewings, particularly by rural audiences.

But the tattered hagiography has lost more than just its cinematic appeal. At the “Forever Lei Feng” exhibition in Beijing on Friday, almost all visitors were government workers or schoolchildren…
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