The Chinese government has long presented Lei Feng, a soldier of the People's Liberation Army, as an icon: a man who selflessly served his country and always worked for the good of the Communist Party and the people.
After his death in 1962, the Party launched a campaign portraying Lei Feng as a model citizen, urging Chinese citizens to follow his virtuous example. His heroic image was splashed across official media and school textbooks.
While a soldier of that name did exist, there has been wide debate about whether details of his life were exaggerated, or even fabricated, to suit the official narrative. No matter: for decades, his appeal marched on.
Until, it seems, last week. On "Learn from Lei Feng Day", March 5, a biographical movie was released. Four screenings were scheduled for its premiere in Nanjing, but not one ticket was sold. A cinema employee was at a loss for an explanation, telling the media: "Normally, a movie, no matter what it is, will still manage to sell at least some tickets."
China has a long history of successful propaganda campaigns, but the embarrassment of a film playing to an empty theatre makes it clear that times have changed. The question is: in an age of globalisation and instant access to information, has the Chinese spin machine finally run off the rails?