Signs and posters reminding commuters it’s “Learn from Lei Feng Day” on March 5th have started to appear on the Shanghai metro. I’m presuming that you’ve all decided what you’re going to do by way of celebration? Bake a cake in the shape of the self-sacrificing soldier, then give it away to a needy peasant without a second thought, just as the Fengster would have done? Thought not.
I recall first reading about Lei Feng as an undergraduate of Mandarin, and feeling an utter lack of empathy with a young man who died at what was almost exactly my own age at the time. (The fact that we appeared to share a birthday made it easy to remember at least one detail of what was a semi-fictionalized life-story.)
Dictatorial regimes need pseudo-moral examples like Lei Feng to spur people to altruism, since they are intrinsically not worth any individual’s self-sacrifice and all inevitably wither and die as the individuals who live within them calculate that their own best strategy is self-interest. I’m sure the Chinese Communist Party would object (though this in my opinion makes it an even better argument) but Lei Feng has always struck me as a Chinese equivalent of the dim workhorse Boxer in Animal Farm. I can just imagine him paraphrasing that credulous equine, a muscular apologist for Napoleon the pig: “If Chairman Mao says it, it must be right...”
Lei Feng might have begun to lean toward 1960s kitsch for China’s urban youth, but consider for a moment his cultural equivalent of exactly three decades earlier - Herbert Norkus of the Hitler Youth, who was supposedly killed by Communists in 1932. I don’t see any Germans still pretending that the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed young Nazi is an example to imitate or even to joke about, and I wish China would quietly, but finally, bury this anachronistic apologist for the evils of authoritarianism.