Engineers of the soul try to fill China's moral vacuum

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"Spiritual civilisation" is about to be launched on the Chinese as an all-embracing palliative for the country's social ills.

Next week, the Communist Party holds its annual plenum, a private affair which this year is expected to dwell on values in modern China. President Jiang Zemin, keen to shore up his position with the people and the army, has chosen "spiritual civilisation" as the guiding theme. The People's Daily, the party mouthpiece, is paving the way with a series featuring a new generation of model workers.

The deeds of a tax collector, an industry-and-commerce cadre and a bureaucrat have been described in detail as the "vivid educational material of socialist spiritual civilisation construction".

These officials have been chosen to exemplify the core of "spiritual civilisation": love for the motherland, loyalty to the party, care for fellow citizens, diligence at work (especially incorruptibility) and - modishly - respect for the environment.

The emphasis on patriotism and gratitude to the party is supposed to fill the moral vacuum in which the Chinese find themselves and to improve the party's image.

More practical tenets address a society racked by crime, corruption, environmental damage and collapsing family values. This week Liu Jiachen, deputy president of the Supreme People's Court, admitted crime syndicates were "seriously affecting the normal operation of our government and party units and administration" and would be the target of the next stage of the "Strike Hard" anti-crime blitz.

As part of "spiritual civilisation", this month was deemed Public Service Announcements Month and thus billboards and newspapers have devoted space to wholesome messages. "Enhance consciousness of environment, and improve the sanitary level of the city," said one placard.

Peking Youth Daily, China's most liberal newspaper, had a cartoon of a lonely old woman: "Today, go back home and spend some time with your parents," read the caption. Water conservation was the theme of another advertisement.

"Spiritual civilisation" has its more overtly political side. This month the Peking Youth Daily editor was replaced with a hardline propagandist, and Peking has implemented a plan to block Internet access to several sites, including US media, human-rights bodies, and pornography.

Most tellingly, the government suspended Economic Work Monthly magazine, which published a criticism of an unofficial leftist tract which has become known as the "10,000- word essay" and which attacked the decline of the state sector and the fast pace of reform. The author of the essay has not revealed himself, but Deng Liqun, an orthodox Marxist ideologue and former propaganda chief, denied he had penned it.

"Spiritual civilisation" serves several purposes: a media clamp curries favour with anti-liberals, while anti-crime campaigns seek popular support.

The question is whether modern Chinese notice old-style propaganda campaigns like "spiritual civilisation": among most, traditional values have given way to cynicism.