Accidental killer is latest Chinese hero

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The Independent Online
For more than three decades, every Chinese schoolchild has been brought up to "Learn from Lei Feng", the young soldier whose overwhelming desire to be "a rustless screw in the machine of the revolution" was cruelly cut short at the age of 22. But it is only this week that generations have discovered the unlikely details of his death - as featured in the first blockbuster propaganda film to hit China in the post-Deng era, The Days After I Left Lei Feng".

A snappier title would have been, How I Accidentally Killed China's Greatest Model Worker. But this is not a film which has to worry about box-office sales. Since its release last week, the edict has gone out from the central government to "organise youngsters and adolescents in primary and middle schools, colleges, enterprises, government offices and army units to watch the film". Discussion groups and essays will "help the youth understand the importance of advocating Lei Feng's spirit under new historical conditions".

Until now, the official version of Soldier Lei's demise was a vague description about how a telegraph pole fell on his head. The new version is even sillier. A summary of the early plot might go as follows: the hapless Qiao Anshan, a soldier colleague of our model hero, shows considerable tolerance for Mr Lei's attempts to make him give up smoking, even when he forces him to drive a truck over his last cigarettes. Mr Lei then gives Mr Qiao some sweet potato chips as a nicotine substitute.

Back at camp, the two men decide to service the truck themselves, to save money for the revolution. For this, Mr Qiao must drive the truck down a narrow pathway, past some rather puny looking wooden poles. Mr Qiao is by this point clearly in the irritable state of a man who has just given up smoking. With Mr Lei on the ground shouting instructions, Mr Qiao misjudges the width of the truck and manages to knock down one of the slim poles so precisely as to kill our hero with one bump to the head. Clearly an accident - or justifiable homicide from the point of view of any serious smoker.

Anyway, some cynics doubt that Lei Feng ever existed before his death in 1962. Others marvel at how the following year the army propaganda cadres "found" the Lei Feng diaries, which documented a life of self-sacrifice helping the poor.

But now it is the turn of Qiao Anshan, an unlikely hero for the propaganda machine. After escaping punishment for Mr Lei's accidental death, Mr Qiao, 57, has devoted his life to living up to the Lei Feng model. But there are challenges for any Good Samaritan under the "new historical conditions" of modern, venal China, and this is where the film plot becomes much more plausible.

Mr Qiao is shown picking up a hit-and-run accident victim in the late Eighties. But the old man's relatives, in a ruse to avoid the high medical charges demanded by any state hospital, accuse Mr Qiao of having run their father down. A devastated Mr Qiao faces bankruptcy, until the police (improbably) track down the real driver.

When Mr Qiao's own truck later gets stuck solid in the mud, no one will help him. "Times have changed, you've got to offer them money," his son says. Mr Qiao rejects such an idea. And a group of middle-school students saves the day.

The question now is whether this Mr Qiao really exists - and how he feels about being named as the man who drove the truck that knocked down the pole that fell down and killed Lei Feng.