Across China the swift changes under capitalism have led to numerous examples of profits over people. In 2008 unscrupulous manufacturers swapped melamine for dairy protein in infant formula leading to the death of 13 babies. A similar crisis hit pet food in 2007 with dogs and cats dying from adulterated feed.
Most recently, China has been swept up over the plight of Xiao Yueue. This two-year old girl was the victim of a hit and run driver in October last year. Even worse, the event was captured on CCTV. Then 18 people walk past the dying child before an elderly lady comes to her aid. Xiao Yueyue died of her injuries. Warning – the video is difficult to watch.
And today’s South China Morning Post provides more and more examples of a decline in China’s society. An official with the Communist Party is arrested for raping under-age girls. More than 100 fall ill from contaminated chicken sold by a local food shop. The father of a Tiananmen Square victim commits suicide 23 years after the death of his son.
So it is with a heavy heart that the people of China flock to the story of Zhang Lili. She is known to the nation today as “Most Beautiful Teacher.”
Three weeks and one day ago, Lili was a primary school teacher in Jiamsui, Heilongjang Province. She was on contract versus a permanent role, and thus received lower pay and no benefits, like health insurance.
One day later she made a selfless sacrifice that has propelled her to national fame. In one moment a bus was careening out of control towards two children. Lili pushed them out of the way. In their place she was crushed under the bus. Suffering severe injuries she was rushed to hospital where she fell into a coma. When she awoke seven days later doctors had amputated her two legs. The hospital warns her condition is still fragile.
The story of Zhang Lili is circulating in news outlets across China. Her work as a teacher is lionised. Her beauty is extolled. Her heroics are trumpeted.
Sensing opportunity, politicians are paying homage during pilgrimages to her hospital bed. Health Minister Chen Zhu said the State would spare no expense in her treatment and rehabilitation. State Councillor Liu Yandong visited with gifts and words of solace:
“You can call me elder sister and I will look after your business forever.,” said Liu Yandong to Zhang Lili
The sacrifices of Zhang Lili come at an opportune time for the people and politicians of China. People need a hero. Much like in the early years of Communist China when Mao Zedong sought ways to promote the Communist Party. At that time Mao had Lei Feng, a soldier killed when a truck knocked over a telephone pole which crushed him. He was 21 years old.
In death Lei Feng achieved a notoriety that escaped him in life. He was lauded for his selfless acts. He was championed for his devotion to Mao Zedong. He typified the underdog for his ability to rise from an early life as an orphan to serve in the army. “Learn from Lei Feng” became a series of propaganda programs that extended for years after the simple soldier’s untimely death.
Just today, Lei Feng’s Army unit is featured in China Daily for its dedication to honouring his memory. The timing is probably not coincidental given the deep wound in society exposed by the sacrifice of Zhang Lili.
The glorification of Zhang Lili is in some ways a retro homage to China’s past heroes like Lei Feng. The rapid move from a State-run society to one that is controlled by markets has many longing for older days. After the collapse of the Berlin Wall most heralded the arrival of freedom for those in East Germany. Many found the changes shocking and in time developed ‘Ostalgie’ – or a longing for the days under communist control. (Read this excellent essay from 2003 on the subject in The New York Times or even better watch the film “Goodbye Lenin!”)
Those hungering for a rise of polite society or a return to olden days have latched onto Zhang Lili. She has become the nation’s “Most Beautiful Teacher.” Her honorific is based on her pre-accident beauty and profession. Or is it based on her inner glow and lesson of sacrifice? Either way the nation of China, and I, wish her the speediest recovery possible.