China's New Hero

The bane of muggers, Xu Honggang is praised by officialdom - but will the masses listen?

CHINA has a new hero.

For the past three decades, the government has exhorted Chinese to ``Learn from Lei Feng,'' a young soldier who died in 1962 at the age of 22 when a wooden pole fell on his head.

The following year, Chairman Mao Zedong resurrected Lei when his diary was ``found,'' and he was discovered to have had an exemplary life that became the center of an official propaganda campaign. A socialist model for a generation of Chinese, Lei Feng led a blameless life, helping the poor, slaving at menial jobs, and devoting himself as ``a rustless screw in the machine of the revolution.''

But in the wake of the Tiananmen Square crackdown and 15 years of economic reform, the Lei Feng myth has faded. Another young soldier, who is actually living, was designated the replacement but has proved to be a flop with the populace.

So now it is move over again Lei Feng, Xu Honggang has arrived.

Since this spring, Mr. Xu, also a 22-year-old People's Liberation Army (PLA) soldier, has taken up the mantle of preaching citizens' responsibility and has been lauded by senior government leaders who fear that market economics is unraveling social control.

Amid rising crime and corruption and what many Chinese say is a moral vacuum in the country, Xu has been heralded in the press, on television, and in public lectures, and by none other than President and Party Secretary Jiang Zemin and Prime Minister Li Peng for his ``revolutionary tradition and national moral excellence.''

Xu's heroics date to a bus ride last August when four robbers assaulted a woman and demanded money. As the woman's husband cowered in a seat corner, according to official press reports, Xu, who was out of military uniform at the time, rescued the woman. He was stabbed 14 times in the process and still chased the four men down the street. The young soldier was rushed to a hospital while the muggers were caught, and one was executed.

Xu became the darling of officialdom and the official media this year. Mr. Peng, the prime minister, called him a ``heroic soldier who defies brutal force and takes up the cudgels for a just cause.'' A senior political leader within the PLA said China needed Xu's ``strong spiritual support and good social morality'' at this time.

According to People's Daily, the organ of the Communist Party, Xu Honggang was a big hit on college campuses. A leader of the Beijing University Students Association called the soldier ``a hero in whom we see the soul and backbone of China.''

An official at People's University was quoted as saying, ``Learning from Xu Honggang, we will advocate revolutionary tradition of our Party and our Army. We also will resist money worship, extreme individualism and hedonism, and establish the noble social moral criterion.''

Hero worship has become official policy now in China. Last year, the government established a fund to reward citizen bravery and lionized more than 100 Beijing residents. Provinces also have set up funds to give potential heroes a little nudge.

According to official reports, bravery has paid off for Xu as well. During his month-long recuperation in the hospital, he reportedly received hundreds of visitors. Admirers presented him with a reward of $ 1,700 earlier this year.

Beijing residents say that, while Xu performed admirably, the campaign based on his heroics has little impact on Chinese these days. ``These Lei Feng-type characters are passe in China today,'' says a middle-aged Beijinger. ``The young people are fixated on making money.''

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