War of words

China’s historical heroes get their day in court (again)

Qiu Shaoyun w

Qiu: honour restored

In 1952 a 26 year-old soldier called Qiu Shaoyun was lying in wait to attack an American-held hilltop in Korea. When a bomb exploded nearby, the straw that Qiu was using as camouflage caught fire. He decided to let himself burn to death rather than put out the flames and betray the position of his comrades.

This is one of the well-known tales of the Party’s so-called martyrs, whose heroics live on in school textbooks. But there are signs that some of the martyrs are no longer receiving the reverence that the Party would like. In June two former magazine editors were ordered to apologise to the children of two such figures for casting doubt over the veracity of their exploits (the Five Heroes of Langya Mountain, see WiC332). And last week internet celebrity Sun Jie and Hong Kong drinks giant Jiaduobao were ordered by a Beijing court to apologise for doubting Qiu Shaoyun’s story, and occasioning “psychological trauma” to his brother.

The origins of the case date back to 2013 when Sun Jie posted a joke on his weibo page. Unfortunately it gets somewhat lost in translation. “Because Qiu Shaoyun lay in the fire without moving, consumers refused to pay for meat only grilled on one side…They preferred the roasted meat of Lai Ning,” Sun joshed. (Lai Ning is another folk hero: a 14 year-old boy who died while helping to put out a forest fire.)

Sun soon deleted the post. But in 2015 the issue resurfaced after Jiaduobao (or JDB, see WiC332) used its social media account to offer him 100,000 cans of Jiaduobao if he opened a barbecue restaurant. Netizens quickly made a connection between the offer and Sun’s 2013 remarks.

JDB has said that it had no knowledge of Sun’s joke and that it asks many celebrities to promote its products. Unfortunately for the company and Sun, Qiu’s brother filed a lawsuit claiming the comments had sullied the reputation of the fallen hero. And he won, though not necessarily big bucks. The Beijing court ordered Sun and JDB to pay symbolic compensation of Rmb1 ($0.15) to Qiu’s brother and to issue public apologies on five consecutive days.

In the ruling Qiu Shaoyun’s role as a staple of political propaganda was given more weight than his identity as an individual; and the court blamed the comments for undermining the public interest, before adding that they had also caused distress to Qiu’s family.

China Youth Daily later wrote, “Insulting Qun Shaoyun isn’t just an insult to an ordinary person, but an insult to the historical and moral perspectives of the Chinese people.”

Perhaps the most famous of the Party’s ‘model workers’ is Lei Feng (see WiC140). In the 1960s propaganda posters urged citizens to “Learn from Lei Feng” and it is a message that echoes across public service messaging today.

But the government doesn’t want to lose sight of China’s other political heroes. The People’s Daily wrote, “Only by firmly maintaining a national memory of history can we condense the national soul. Only if the whole of society increases its respect for heroes [will we] allow their spirit to be passed from generation to generation.”

This notion of a “national memory of history” has perturbed some local academics. Qiao Mu, a professor of journalism at Beijing Foreign Studies University, described the politicisation of historical figures in this way as “worrying”, telling the New York Times that it blocks the search for historical truth.

The People’s Daily disagrees, arguing that in the instance involving Qiu historical facts were besmirched for the sake of a marketing gimmick.

The newspaper does acknowledge that for the younger generation the stories of military heroics from a previous century have become too distant to be relevant. But that led it to propose that some more modern-day martyrs should be added to the pantheon. Its opening suggestion: the Chinese peacekeepers who were killed in South Sudan in June (see WiC334).

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