`God of water' toes the party line in China

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Li Guoan is a local hero - and that's official. The 50-year- old army officer has been launched as the 1996 model Chinese citizen. "Li is so popular among the local people that they always burst into applause when they see his jeep coming," said the China Daily in its introduction to Mr Li.

Few countries still have official heroes, but Chinese certainly does. So on a Tuesday morning in January, the main national newspapers published in Peking all carried lengthy front-page stories and photographs extolling the work and career of Regimental Commander Li.

Mr Li is unusual as official Chinese heroes go because he is still alive. The government generally prefers to eulogise those who have passed away, so that they cannot let the side down at some later date. The most famous model citizen was Lei Feng, a young soldier who died in 1962 at the age of 22 when a wooden pole fell on his head. It was not until the following year that his "found" diary revealed that his life had been considerably more revolutionarily correct than the manner of his death. Toiling to help China's poor, his avowed goal had been to be "a rustless screw in the machine of the revolution", the diary said.

Step forward Mr Li. In his work leading troops digging wells in the northern Chinese province of Inner Mongolia, he has been nicknamed the "God of Water" by locals. The emergence of the commander has coincided with President Jiang Zemin's new stress on "talking politics". So a soldier digging for water in Inner Mongolia can be used to make a variety of propaganda points. The stories of impoverished villages dependent on stored rainwater should, the newspapers thundered, "serve as a lesson for ... officials who seek their own interests by abusing their administrative powers".

One will never know how much of the official biography is true. At the end of 1993, it is said, Mr Li was hospitalised with a serious lower- spine disease when he heard that the water- supply team was about to give up on a drought-stricken village in the Gobi desert. Despite the fact he could not really walk, he rushed to the scene and urged on the drilling team, who duly found sweet water. Since 1993, Mr Li received the equivalent of pounds 2,500 in donations, but gave it all to good causes.

Not all have benefited from Mr Li's approach to hard work, however. In a telling admission of what makes a local hero these days in China, the official biography points out that in 1992, the army allocated an apartment to Mr Li. He, however, gave it away to his unit's political commissar, leaving his family to continue living in the crowded barracks.