To young Chinese, Stone Age hero politics are positively Jurassic

By Julie Chao  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , Beijing

Fri, Jul 09, 2004 - Page 9

When it comes to selling products, Chinese advertising firms employ many of the snazzy techniques of Madison Avenue. But when it comes to selling ideology, the Chinese government is still stuck in the Mao Zedong (毛澤東) era.

The propaganda czars have recently turned the death of a small-town police chief into a nationwide media blitz, their largest effort in several years to create

a new Communist Party hero. Eager to boost the image of China's much-maligned police officers, authorities have ordered blanket coverage on the nightly news and by most major newspapers and magazines of the good deeds of Ren Changxia (任長霞), a female police chief who died in a car accident in April.

In bygone years, the "model worker" technique was a tool for galvanizing the collective spirit -- turning an ordinary good citizen into a paragon of selflessness. But in today's society, where commercial and individual interests dominate and cynicism abounds, the message is lost on the Chinese populace.

"It's Stone Age stuff," scoffed Jing Jun, director of the Social Policy Institute at Tsinghua University. "This kind of style, making her into a Joan of Arc kind of hero, is unbelievable in the pure sense of the word. It doesn't make her human."

Some experts say the outdated style shows how out of touch the government is with modern society.

"This is a warning signal for the government," said Li Xiguang, vice director of Tsinghua University's School of Journalism. "The government is losing its agenda-setting power. For the next generation, it has a big, big challenge."

Ren had been police chief of Dengfeng, a small city in Henan Province, for three years when she died. She was known for working tirelessly to chase down criminals and for listening to citizen complaints. She gave out her mobile phone number to the public and adopted an orphaned girl. At least 140,000 Dengfeng residents turned out to mourn her, more than one-fifth of the town, according to official media reports.

The propaganda campaign has included reams of file footage of her meetings with local residents. She has been eulogized with coverage by the state-run media of officials and police officers around the country holding "study sessions" of Ren's work, including a session that took place in Beijing's Great Hall of the People, where China's legislature meets annually. Even the country's top leaders, President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) and Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶), have urged police officers and party officials to follow her good example.

Chinese people who have paid attention to the campaign, which has lasted throughout the month of June, don't doubt that Ren was a better-than-average cop. But the lavish praise heaped on her also raised questions.

"Why do they always wait until the person's dead?" said Han Fengling, 30, an insurance agent in Beijing. "It seems like it's too late. They should've praised her when she was still alive. It would've been more effective."

In China's lively online chat rooms, citizens are even more skeptical. The propaganda shows only the positive, but many see only the negative.

"In everyday life, it's very difficult to see a good police officer," one person wrote. "You can see it only on TV."

"It's very moving, but the details beg a lot of questions," one person wrote. "In dealing with all those cases (of citizens' grievances), why were they not handled by her predecessors? What were they doing?"

Chinese people have become more cynical than ever about the government and corruption. Police in particular are seen as corrupt and uncaring.

"The irony is when people look at this, they see what's lacking in society," said Dali Yang, a political science professor at the University of Chicago.

Since taking office more than a year ago, Hu and Wen have tried to differentiate themselves from their predecessors, especially Jiang Zemin, by portraying themselves as compassionate toward ordinary and disadvantaged people.

While Jiang emphasized rapid economic development, the new leadership has endeavored to strike a populist stance.

Over the years, the Communist Party has had no shortage of model workers. There was Wang Jinxi (王進喜), the "Iron Man" of the northeast oil fields who died in 1971. Wang's greatest deed was jumping into a vat of cold water to stir cement with his own body.

The best-known is Lei Feng (雷鋒), a young soldier whose posthumously found "diary" showed his undying love for the revolution and Chairman Mao. A national campaign was launched in 1963 to study the "Lei Feng spirit."

To this day, people still learn of Lei Feng's good deeds.

But in an era when Michael Jordan and Bill Gates are their greatest idols, a model soldier can hardly compete in the eyes of Chinese schoolchildren.

"There's a very deep generation gap," Jing said. "They really need to find a new way to reach out."