China Power

A Hunger for Heroes

The success of Jeremy Lin, and the 50th anniversary of the death of Lei Feng, revive a debate about heroes.

By Elizabeth C. Economy for

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 50th  anniversary of the death of Lei Feng. A People’s Liberation Army soldier who died at the age of 22 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’s 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 to 1962, the young man (he would have been 18 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.”

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Beijing has stood firm against such a diminution of Lei’s value. In advance of the anniversary of his death on March 5, the Ministry of Education was underscoring the value of Lei, calling for a campaign in which students of all ages would embark on a new program “to carry forward the spirit of Lei Feng.” Over the course of the 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’s 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 50th anniversary of Lei Feng’s death, it will be interesting to see whom the Chinese people choose as heroes for themselves.

Elizabeth C. Economy is C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. She is an expert on Chinese domestic and foreign policy and U.S.-China relations and author of the award-winning book, 'The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China's Future.'  She blogs at Asia Unbound, where this piece originally appeared.