There is a long tradition of the Chinese Communist Party acknowledging and honoring “model workers,” selfless citizens who contribute to the building of modern China. While in the early years after the revolution these individuals were usually peasants or ordinary workers like Zhang Binggui who worked at a candy counter and could “count out prices and change in his head,” the category has expanded to encompass almost all professions including the astronaut Yang Liwei and NBA-great Yao Ming.
The most famous model of serving the people was Lei Feng, the young soldier who became the subject of a massive propaganda campaign in 1963, a year after his death. As China Daily put it, Lei Feng “is hailed as a cultural icon, symbolizing selflessness, modesty, and dedication. His name creeps into people’s hearts, daily conversation, music, even movies.”
These model worker campaigns serve a number of purposes: to mobilize and motivate citizens; identify qualities and characteristics that would be valued in the new China; and signal political priorities and concerns. Campaigns to “Learn from Comrade Lei Feng” have been rolled out numerous times over the last six years (see this timeline at Danwei) in efforts to divert from corruption scandals and other bad news as well as address the very real growing absence of civic mindedness and public-spiritedness.
The Chinese press has recently introduced two new model workers active in cybersecurity: Li Congna (李聪娜) of the PLA, and the “Legendary Female Cyber Cop,” Gao Yuan (高 媛) of the Beijing Public Security Bureau’s Cybersecurity Defense Division. The stories of these two women repeat many of the same tropes from campaigns in the 1950s and 1960s, especially those focused on what historian Tina Mai Chen calls “female kind first“—the first woman tractor driver, welder, or train conductor.
The heroes of these stories must overcome both physical and mental hardships. Sun Xiaoju, the first female train conductor, faced temperatures of minus twenty degrees Celsius but refused to let the frostbite affect her. After working on one project for a month, Li Congna lost 7.5 kg, and a marathon coding session left her unconsciousness for three days (physical hardship is missing from Gao’s story; her greatest hardship seems to be someone stole her identity on the instant messaging service QQ). As with Tang Sumei, an ordinary “peasant girl” who knew nothing about the machinery when she first entered a Beijing electric substation in 1952 but was a manager by 1953, hard study and individual resolve save the day. Confronted by source code she couldn’t read or understand, Li stayed late in her office “memorizing related functions, studying protocol mechanisms, researching both foreign and domestic computer program models. In one month, she had written 300,000 lines of code, more than 100 types of functions, more than 60 protocol mechanisms, and more than 20 design algorithms.”
What do these model workers tell us about Chinese cyber policy? First is the need for constant innovation. Li keeps confronting problems that require a new, self-developed technological solution. In her office, she has posted the slogan: “Yesterday’s technology cannot win tomorrow’s wars.” Facing a difficult problem, the advice of a teacher rings in Li’s ear: “the world of information networks is a game of new knowledge and new technologies.”
Second, there is an acknowledgement that traditional top-down, hierarchical organizational and training procedures are not up to the task of network warfare. Several times we are told that Li is not afraid to let others take the lead and in particular she lets “young daring people” assume responsibility as group leaders.
Gao Yuan is a model of how the Chinese government can successfully use Weibo and other social media to bolster public approval by providing useful services and eschewing overt propaganda. Her story is filled with how helpful she is to Chinese netizens—Gao has “tweeted over 1,500 times; spread knowledge about staying vigilant over 700 times; has answered netizens’ questions close to 2,000 times; and has provided technological support over 400 times.” The political content of Gao’s work appears to be low, and as a result she seems to be highly respected. She currently has 1.52 million followers on Weibo, and one follower has started a cartoon series about her. In contrast, a number of commenters were highly critical of the Li Congna story, with several mocking the idea of Li’s falling unconscious.
Gender matters to these stories, as information security is a heavily male profession (see for example, the recent discussions about sexism and sexual harassment at DEF CON, the annual hacker conference held in Las Vegas). The descriptions of both Li and Gao as beautiful strike one as unnecessary, if not slightly retrograde; but as Chen notes about the model tractor workers of the past, these stories send an important message about the ability of women to master new technologies. The Li story goes even further noting “female service members will inevitably assume more responsibility, and will make greater achievements.” As a result, the PLA will have to adjust: “The armed forces at all levels should provide them with a wide arena.”
It is easy to dismiss these stories as out-of-date and heavy-handed. But, assuming the press doesn’t turn to new model workers, Li’s and Gao’s future adventures are likely to provide further insights into some real issues in Chinese cyber policy.
Adam Segal is a Maurice R. Greenberg Senior Fellow for China Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He blogs at Asia Unbound, where this piece originally appeared. Follow him on Twitter @adschina.