Saturday, 17 March 2012

The Spirit of Lei Feng lives on……On Chinese University Campuses

This year, August 15th to be precise, marks the 50th anniversary of the death of Lei Feng.  While this year marks 50 years since the passing of the icon of Communist China, every year on the 5th March young Chinese are encouraged to "learn from Lei Feng (向雷锋学习)" as part of Lei Feng Day 学雷锋日.  Needless to say, this year, in view of the 50 years since his death, events have been prominent and covered extensively in the national and local media.  

For those of you who have never heard of Lei Feng 雷锋, he was a young Communist and revolutionary soldier who dedicated much of his young life to selflessly helping others, adhering to socialist principles and revering the teachings of Chairman Mao.   
died at a tragically young at the age of 21, killed in an accident when a PLA transport truck struck a telephone pole which then fell on Lei, killing him instantly.  Here's a short 20min film for those with a penchant for late 60's CPC propaganda videos.  (no English subtitles I'm afraid, but its a simple story.  Nice man helps others a lot and never thinks of himself).

The Ministry of Education has reported a wide range of activities conducted at famous universities across China, including Wuhan University, Beijing Foreign Studies University (BFSU), Shanghai Jiaotong University, Fudan University, Nankai University, North China Electrical Power University, Beijing Forestry University, Jiangnan University, Hebei Agricultural University, Dongbei Normal University, Tianjian Foreign Studies University and several city level business colleges across the country.  Doubtless that many more universities held similar activities on Lei Feng Day, urging students to develop a more considerate and less self-centred attitude towards their personal development.  Students volunteer to contribute to the improvement of campus life in a variety of different ways; to help individuals without thought for themselves; engage with the surrounding community, and 

Events like Lei Feng Day are often dismissed as quaint little nods to the CCP; a necessary ritual that all Chinese students must endure.  Conversely, many cynics (often foreigners - or at least those sufficiently out of the expat bubble to even know that such events exist) deride such occasions as subversive efforts to indoctrinate the youth of China with the poisonous ideologies of Communism and authoritarian rule.  

Yet if we look at many of the problems in modern China, problems that have been well-documented both inside and outside of the PRC, civility, at a very basic person-to-person level, is often absent in fast-moving contemporary China.  Whether its high-profile cases such as the young child left injured in a Guangdong street late last year, or a more cases of callousness towards fellow citizens (especially where money is concerned), it is perhaps apparent that a little more selflessness would be a good thing. 

The recent 2010-2020 Education Plan  (2010-2020 国家中教育改革和发展规划纲要) specifically addresses the role of education as primarily related to the moral education and moral development of citizens, a distinctly Confucian view of the role of education.  University Presidents and Party Secretaries are charged with not only providing moral leadership by example, but also in ensuring that  morality occupies a place of central importance in the development of students.  

Its also this type of interesting cultural event that makes China a fascinating place to be.  I would sincerely hope, as was the case when I studied at Fudan University (2004/05) and Peking University (2007/08) that these activities continue to offer windows into modern China's soul.  Its certainly my opinion that such activities are entirely benign, often useful, raise consciousness of civic responsibility (which is a fundamental prerequisite for democratic participation in any form), and contribute to an altogether more pleasant atmosphere.  

Such type of community-based, or sphere-based participation could well be the basis of political reform in China, given the great philosophical tradition of elevating the needs of society over and above the rights of the individual.  Indeed, there has already been much written about experiments in civic participation in municipalities in eastern China, and I've seen exactly this type of issue covered in-depth on local TV (one that springs to mind is issues of food hygiene in local restaurants being tackled by concerned citizens with the full backing of the city Mayor and various bureaus).  

While these may well be thoughts on the shape of China's coming transformation, despite Wen Jiabao's recent call for political reform, we should recognize that "democratization" does not necessarily equate with "electoral reform".  Personally, I feel that any system of democratization introduced in China will be done so gradually, and will emphasize social stability and social cohesion over individual political liberties (thus reducing the scope for any form of representative, multi-party democracy).  Where I differ from many of my friends (westerners, specifically), is that I do not view this as unfortunate.   I strongly feel that, since 1989 the west has rested on its laurels, convinced of the supremacy of its own political and economic model.  In reality, our cavalier attitude has allowed crony-capitalism and plural interests to undermine the very basis of our electoral system, placing our governments at the whim of big business: we may vote them in, but they've shown consistently over the years that once they're in they disregard the voter and pander to big business.  What excites me about China is two things: (A) their determination to forge their own path and (B) that this is going to force the West into a wholescale re-examination of our uncritical and absolute faith in a system which increasingly seems to be very far from the ideals upon which it is supposed to have been built.  

While little things like Lei Feng Day may appear insignificant, there is a small part of me that sees how the role of the university, as a place where new ideas are fomented, formed and enacted, could be crucial.  Even in a state-corporatist system like China, insitutional and social change is inevitable.  Even if the CCP maintain their power, change will occur in and out of university level activity.  Perhaps we will see a new form of political change arising from universities in China, but perhaps it will be as a result of CCP policies, not in spite of them.  

"Lei Feng on Campus: Education System carries out 'Study Lei Feng Activities'" from the MoE Website: 

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