Share story

BEIJING — It has been five decades since Mao Zedong decreed that the altruistic, loyal Lei Feng should be a shining star in the Communist Party’s constellation of propaganda heroes. But 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 March 5, 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.

In cities across the country, many theaters were unable to sell even a single ticket, an embarrassment for the Communist Party, which has been seeking to burnish its moral luster during the annual legislative sessions of China’s rubber-stamp Parliament taking place in the capital, where Lei Feng was venerated as an inspiration for all.

The unwelcome development in the Lei Feng narrative subverted the carefully scripted celebration of the Communist role model. By the time Lei Feng died at 21 — in 1962, hit by a falling telephone pole — a slew of government paparazzi had captured him fixing military trucks, darning his fellow soldiers’ socks or diligently studying the works of Mao by flashlight. After his death, a diary detailing his many selfless acts was supposedly discovered and then swiftly disseminated among the masses to be studied and, it was hoped, emulated.

This week, save 90% on digital access.

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 extramarital affairs.

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 to a nation where smartphones vastly outnumber copies of Mao’s Little Red Book.

Today, social media apps include Micro Lei Feng, meant to inspire good deeds among the technologically adept. The state media has been championing him as “a role model for Chinese society today as the government is trying to improve the social moral environment.”

But experts agree that the relentless portrayal of Lei Feng as a panacea for China’s social ills has rung hollow for those who have doubts about the party’s moral authority.

“The Chinese government no longer enjoys high credibility among people,” said Zhang Ming, a professor of political science at Renmin University in Beijing. “It begs the question: The government keeps bringing up the Lei Feng spirit and calling on people to be more helping to others, but what has the government done to follow the Lei Feng spirit?”

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.

In the central Chinese city of Taiyuan, in Shanxi province, an employee of a cinema confessed that it had pulled the films — “Young Lei Feng,” “Lei Feng’s Smile” and “Lei Feng 1959” — after the theaters remained empty on opening day. The films suffered a similar fate in coastal Nanjing. Even in Beijing, where thousands of delegates to the National People’s Congress were gathering, the films were doing poorly. One local cinema reported “Young Lei Feng” had sold only 43 tickets in four days — compared to more than 450 for “Les Miserables.”

The government is 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 March 8, almost all the visitors were government workers and schoolchildren, despite the fact that municipal officials had sent a text message to millions of cellphone subscribers announcing the show.

Zhen Lifu, a professor at Peking University who was volunteering as a docent Friday, spent the day lecturing about Lei Feng’s generosity toward his comrades. But away from the crowds, Zhen admitted that he thought Lei Feng himself would have been depressed by the moral decay that plagues modern Chinese society. “Frankly, Lei Feng wouldn’t be the only one,” he said. “These days, we’re all pretty dissatisfied, which is why we need Lei Feng.”

Amy Qin and Shi Da contributed research.

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.