Lei who? China doesn’t have saints, right? Altruism in China?
For most people around the world, Lei Feng barely makes a blip on the historical radar. In China, however, you’re more likely to see this man’s face than Deng or Xi. Lei Feng is embraced as a venerable demagogue for a China that holds dear the tenets of socialism, especially the acts of philanthropy and volunteerism. In fact, March 5th is celebrated as National Volunteer Day – or as the locals call it, “Learn from Lei Feng Day.”
Although scholars debate whether his story is historical fact or Communist propaganda, everyone knows the man, his life, and what he represents.
The conventional wisdom goes like this. Lei Feng was born in Hunan in 1940, growing up during tumultuous times of invasion, war, famine, and great national upheaval. Orphaned and alone as a child, he eventually joined the Communist Youth Corps. By 20, he was a member of the People’s Liberation Army, tragically dying a year later in a vehicle accident. After his death, the Party released Lei Feng’s Diary. Inside the diary were accounts of selfless deeds, praise for Mao, and the Party. According to the People’s Daily.
“…his short life gives concentrated expression to the noble ideals of a new people…[the] will to work arduously for self-improvement, the moral quality and self-cultivation of showing fraternal unity and taking pleasure in assisting others, the heroic spirit of being ready to take up cudgels for a just cause without caring for one's safety, the attitude of seeking advancement and studying hard, and the genuine spirit of matching words with deeds and enthusiastically carrying out one's duties.”
This past Saturday the streets of Shanghai were filled with bright red banners encouraging people to embrace the spirit of Lei Feng. Tables of volunteers from a multitude of civic organizations signed up the next cadre of volunteers to their ranks. Young people roved the streets, eager to help the elderly with their bags or direct a lost tourist to their destination.
Some studies argue that the cultural importance of Lei Feng is waning considerably in China. With all these volunteers on the street, though, I took the opportunity to rove around and see if they knew why they were out this March 5th. My “scientific” process was simple: show people a picture of Lei Feng and ask if they knew him. I asked close to 50 people and without hesitation they all shouted his name. The youngest interviewee, a third grader, knew exactly who he was and what he represented.
Whether or not the man existed as people believe his did is of little concern to me. What matters more is the message behind the story. I guess this is what makes Lei Feng a patron-saint-like figure. Not to wax religious, but in a society that went without formalized religion for so long, perhaps this person helped to keep the country on its traditional moral compass during turbulent times. Today, Lei Feng helps ground a society that is developing at breakneck speed, often at the cost of the people within it.
All this leads me to believe that China is in good hands for the future. The United Nations backs this up. In its 2015 report on the state of volunteerism in China, the UNDP notes that the China Young Volunteers Association alone has 50 million volunteers. Add to this the hundreds of thousands of volunteers from corporations, and the ability to mobilize them at a moment’s notice, and this is a recipe for philanthropic success. March 5th or not, the spirit of Lei Feng is alive and well.