x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

China's Lei Feng: from hero to zero

In an age of globalisation and instant access to information, has the Chinese propaganda machine finally run off the rails?

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?