At the beginning of March this year, an organisation was banned in the eastern Chinese province of Shandong. It was not properly registered but still collected donations. Moreover, the authorities were keen to protect the memory of the man it was named after. The group called itself the "China Lei Feng Foundation". While no one except for a few sinologists outside of China has ever heard the name Lei Feng, it is renowned within China.
"Learning from comrade Lei Feng" - almost every Chinese knows the famous words of Mao Ze- dongs, which started the first Lei Feng campaign on March 5, 1963, one year after Lei's death. Lei grew up in the 1940s as an orphan and was brought up by party cadres and spent his short life in the People's Liberation Army. He died in an accident aged just 21. Lei Feng became famous posthumously for his good deeds during his lifetime: He helped old women across the street, donated a meagre salary to those in need and secretly darned his comrades' socks at night. These good deeds established his reputation as a humble and selfless model soldier. He was viewed as a moral hero to emulate. He dedicated his life entirely to the party and wanted to serve the people. His good deeds were recorded for posterity in his diaries.
Numerous entries resemble revolutionary aphorisms. On January 18, 1961, for example, Feng noted: "Always be diligent and fully committed to mankind's liberation - that is true happiness." On February 5, 1962, the beginning of the spring festival, he notes: "Today everyone is celebrating and having fun, I too played table tennis with my friends. After that I had the feeling that I had done nothing at all. So I went to the station to help out. I helped an old woman get aboard, carried her luggage, and only felt better once I'd found a seat for her. Later when I cleaned the bus stop shelter, a worker told me to take a break, but I didn't take a break, because that was my duty. When I poured water for the guests afterwards, they said how wonderfully the army takes care of the people. It makes me happiest that my good deeds make people love the party, Chairman Mao and the army even more."
Up until today, March 5 is Lei Feng Day in China. On this day, people, especially pupils and students try to copy the Lei Feng spirit. They clean schoolyards or parks, help old people or donate blood.
The name Lei Feng is inseparably connected to Mao Zedong, but his successors have also repeatedly used the model soldier for their purposes. In the 1980s, as part of the market-oriented policy of openness and reform, the Lei Feng spirit was invoked. Since individual wealth, as it was viewed then, contributed to the economic growth of the entire country, the up-and-coming wealthy also served the people in the spirit of Lei Feng.
After the crackdown of the democracy movement on Tiananmen Square in 1989, Lei Feng was used again, this time to remind the Chinese that the army was actually the friend and protector of the people. Shortly afterwards he was central to a comprehensive patriotic education campaign.
When the 50th anniversary of the day of death was celebrated in 2012, the Chinese leadership launched the latest big Lei Feng campaign. Many Chinese believe that Chinese capitalism has plunged society into a moral crisis, which is expressed in the rampant corruption of party cadres, increasing social coldness and a competitive mindset. So it was decided to turn back to a selfless, collective caring, morally impeccable figure. Xi Jinping, under whose rule politics became increasingly tense and morality did not improve, also adopted the model soldier as an ideological role model. Xi stated in 2014 that the Lei Feng spirit was an expression of basic socialist values. When new textbooks came into circulation in 2017, Lei, along with Karl Marx and Confucius, numbered among the historical figures taught to Chinese children. And this year, symposia are planned to reconcile the Lei Feng spirit with the achievements of last fall's 19th Party Congress.
But the hero has a credibility problem. There are doubts whether he lived at all. Some wonder how he, who died in his early twenties, could find time to write several hundred diary entries and about thirty poems while serving in the army and helping those in need. It is also surprising how a photographer was always present to document his good deeds, especially since photography in China in the early 1960s was a select luxury. Some even describe him as the yeti of the Communist Party's history: a comprehensively described figure, documented in photographs, who may never have existed. Even if these objections cannot be dismissed, it is likely that he did live. If he had been a pure propaganda invention, Mao's spin doctors would have fashioned him a more heroic death: While giving instructions to a truck, Lei Feng was killed by a telephone pole that the vehicle had rammed.
A greater problem for Lei Feng's credibility arises from the figure's permanent adaptation to the political zeitgeist. In 2013, three films about him were released in cinemas and all flopped. One was withdrawn, for the other two state officials had to be forced to turn up as viewers.
Who is a hero in China, who is made a hero by whom and why? The heroes in the western world are not necessarily heroes in China and vice versa. If some people celebrate Steve Jobs as the hero of capitalism, others favour the Chinese online merchant who founded Alibaba, Jack Ma. In the meantime, Alibaba makes more turnover than Amazon, eBay and PayPal combined. Kurt Cobain became an anti-hero at the beginning of the 1990s and inspired Western youth, while Chinese rock musician Cui Jian, whose song "I have nothing" became the hymn of the student protests on Tiananmen Square.
In the West, when asked about Chinese heroes, many would probably think of the late Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo or Ai Weiwei, the critical artist who emigrated to Berlin. In China they are not seen as heroes. That is not just because Ai's art is not known in all parts of China, but more because for us heroes from undemocratic states are those who challenge the existing system. However, and that is shown by the case of Ai, this way of thinking comes unstuck when the artist doesn't keep up his criticism of the regime.
And the problem of hero worship also arises with Lei Feng. If we in the West emphasize the bizarreness of the figure and the depravity of the Chinese society, which is undoubtedly instrumentalised, we ignore the fact that there are people in China who take the stylised model soldier seriously and even aim to emulate him.
On the 55th Lei Feng Day his spirit was once again conjured up and laced with a good portion of opportunism: Some 3.5 million organized volunteers in Shanghai offered free health and legal advice, a free haircut or household repairs. It remains to be seen if it does these people a favour to be labeled "living Lei Fengs," a phrase often used by the state media. But those who voluntarily care for others in a deeply capitalist society brands itself socialist are the real heroes of everyday Chinese life.