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Blogging Beijing

The 2008 Summer Olympics will punctuate three decades of development and test China's global legitimacy. They've already transformed the way millions of people think and live. Seattleite and Fulbright researcher Daniel Beekman brings you Beijing.

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April 29, 2008 11:19 AM

Liu Xiang vs. Lei Feng

Posted by Daniel Beekman

According to the Wall Street Journal's Geoffery Fowler ('Where have you gone, Lei Feng' - April 12), Liu Xiang - Shanghai's handsome hurdler - belongs to "a new breed of Chinese hero: the global champion."

Liu won a gold medal for China at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens - dashing 110 meters in 12.91 seconds. He's since become a Chinese media darling - the country's first-ever track star.

"Traditionally, hero making has been the job of the state," Fowler writes, "and most state heroes are idealized former leaders and soldiers who exemplified the Communist ideals. But in an era of reform and commercialized media, China's emerging icons are looking less like heroes of the state than heroes of the people. From athletes to nimble and wealthy entrepreneurs, today's Chinese heroes are exalted for both global achievements and peoples' ability to relate to their success."

According to Fowler, Communist heroes like Lei Feng - a selfless soldier who died young - are fading from this nation's imagination. Modern Chinese idolize Taiwanese rappers and Internet wizards. Modern Chinese admire winners, not martyrs.

Fowler quotes Jack Ma, a celebrated Internet speculator - CEO of the e-commerce firm Alibaba.

"Many years ago, all of the heroes were made by the government," Ma told the WSJ. "Today, people make you a hero. The things you achieve make you a hero. That is a huge change."

Lei Feng was a soldier of the revolution and China's favorite son during the 1960s. Born an orphan in 1940, Lei grew up by way of the Communist Party. His diary was published after his death - struck by an army truck in 1962. A year later, Chairman Mao Zedong urged all Chinese citizens to 'Learn from Comrade Lei Feng.'

Mao applauded Lei's faith in the communist party, plastering Lei slogans thoughout China. A reliable soldier - cheerful, noble, hardworking and helpful - Lei served as a role model. His legend suffered slightly following Mao's death in 1976; Lei, however, is still admired.

Liu Xiang, born in 1983 to a truck driver and waitress, competed at high-jump until his state-sponsored sports school 'gave up on him.' That's when Liu took up hurdles, breezing past local competition.

According to his coach, Liu was initially an awful hurdler. A determined runner nonetheless, Liu won the 110-meter hurdles at Osaka's 2001 East Asian Games and Beijing's 2001 World University Games. Last year, he became China's first athlete to achieve track & field's 'triple crown' as world record holder, world champion and Olympic champion - all at once.

Liu, whose given name means 'take flight,' was raised by grandparents; the 24-year old dedicated his 2004 gold to his grandmother. Possessing a sweet face and sweeter disposition, Liu has earned the adulation of China's young women.

He's taken to fame, charming reporters and consumers alike. Beaming Liu Xiang billboards endorse Nike, Cadillac and Coca-Cola where decades ago Lei Feng's posters hung. Yili, a Chinese dairy firm, pays Liu 10 million yuan (US$1.5 million) a year.

In April, Chinese youngsters - more than 2,000 polled between the ages of 8 and 24 - voted Liu 'most popular athlete'. The hurdler beat out Chinese basketball luminary Yao Ming and soccer's David Beckham.

Liu has clearly achieved iconic status; he's favored by patriots, jocks, gossips and advertising executives. Perhaps Liu does belong to a 'new breed of Chinese hero' - Fowler's 'global champion.'

Blogging Beijing hit the streets to find out...Is Liu Xiang China's new Lei Feng?

"No way," shouted a middle-aged man selling popsicles near Beijing's 'Big Bell Temple' - Da Zhong Si. "Yes, I know Liu Xiang - the runner. I like him. Chinese athletes don't often win medals in track.

"Lei Feng was a soldier - someone who helped other people. Liu Xiang, he's a sports hero. Beyond that...running is one thing, contributing to society is another."

An out-of-town couple visiting the temple agreed.

"Liu Xiang is an athlete," they observed. "We all like him. He sets a great example - with respect to sports. He's no Lei Feng though. He's an Olympian. Lei Feng served the people. Lei Feng was a hero."

"I guess you could compare the two," a 24-year old chuckled. "Although I'm not sure you completely understand Lei Feng. Liu Xiang is China's treasure. He gives us strength. In fact, I prefer him to Lei Feng. I'm a young person."

Liu Xiang's name drew smiles from three women chomping pears outside Da Zhong Si.

"He's an Olympic champion - the whole world knows who Liu Xiang is," lectured one of the women, an icredulous, retired schoolteacher. "He's our hero, the pride of China and a gold medalist. We Chinese all love him.

"We tell our kids - look at Liu Xiang. Work hard to improve your body. Do you best. Practice. Don't worry what other people say. Liu Xiang is a good boy. When he's not running, he helps people. He's young like Lei Feng was young. He's our heart."

This may be Liu Xiang's year - many expect him to win a second gold medal - but he's hardly eclipsed Lei Feng. Most Chinese seem to sincerely respect the soldier's memory and value his deeds.

"I like Liu Xiang - he's a hero on par with your NBA stars in America," commented a 62-year old doctor. "We're all very proud of him.

"But he isn't China's new Lei Feng. That's not right. Lei Feng was a helper. Running isn't the same. Today's kids should study Lei Feng in addition to Liu Xiang, Yao Ming and Kobe Bryant. We old men and women were young when Lei Feng was alive - we care about him very much. He's important to us. He volunteered because he wanted to. Now I suppose Liu Xiang is more popular."

"I really like Liu Xiang because he's a winner," said a Beijing high school student. "I wouldn't say he's the new Lei Feng though. I studied Lei Feng in elementary school. He's still worth studying."

"I know Lei Feng and Liu Xiang," a six-year old answered. "I like them both."

"Liu Xiang runs very fast," his friend added.

Liu Xiang the commercial pitchman and global sex symbol may belong to a 'new breed of Chinese hero' - a self-made man sans socialist state. And yet, not so much has changed.

A few months ago, Liu found himself elected to the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference. Mao's precious Lei Feng never achieved that.


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Posted by Bob

11:38 PM, Apr 30, 2008

Hi Dan,

Great to hear what people on the streets had to say about it! Another difference between Liu and Lei is that Lei Feng became famous after his death (when his diary was 'discovered'), while Liu has had to deal with the huge weight of expectation from an emormously expectant public!

As you have mentioned previously, the Chinese public voted seeing Liu retain his gold in Beijing as their greatest Olympic dream


Posted by Erick

4:33 PM, May 01, 2008

With new found wealth and materialism, it's no surprise that China has found new heroes in entertainment and sport. Unfortunately, in the US the term hero has been misused and has lost its meaning. Many consider athletes as heroes instead of their local police officers who put their lives on the line every day. Based on your interview sample, it's refreshing to see that even the younger Chinese know the difference between a sports figure and a true hero in Liu Feng, who helped society.

Posted by Flora

1:19 AM, May 06, 2008

My mom had a good joke about Lei Feng. I grew up with so many stories about Lei Feng. However, I somehow forgot how he died two years ago. I asked my mom and she replied, "b/c they didn't have reversing radors at that time..." I bet it could be a good marketing idea in China!

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