When China's rubber-stamp parliament, the National People's Congress, gathers next week under the red flags and stars of the Communist Party in the Great Hall of the People, it will likely be the biggest gathering of billionaires anywhere in the world this year – outside of, perhaps, the World Economic Forum in Davos.
There are no laws requiring Chinese political figures to disclose their wealth, but a recent study based on what little information is available to the public found that the wealthiest 60 NPC delegates had an average wealth of at least $1.44-billion.
According to figures assembled compiled by the Hurun Report, a magazine that compiles an annual list of China's wealthiest individuals, the wealthiest American congressman, California Republican Darrell Issa, with a net worth of $700-million, would only be the 40th richest member of the NPC.
And yet, when the 3,000 members of the NPC gatherMonday for its annual session, they are expected to tell the public to remember the life of Lei Feng, a modest soldier and communist icon who lived a short and simple life dedicated to Chairman Mao, socialism and serving the people.
The opening of the NPC coincides this year with the 50th anniversary of Mr. Lei's accidental death on March 5, 1962, when the then-22-year-old was crushed by a falling telephone pole. Mr. Lei's long afterlife as a propaganda tool is now coming to an unexpected crescendo in 2012, when it will be marked by song competitions and public forums on the "Lei Feng spirit."
Lei Feng's resurrection as a political symbol is seen as tied to a campaign launched last year by President Hu Jintao that seeks to restore the country's "core socialist values." Shaken by incidents like the dying toddler who was ignored by passersby in a Guangdong market last October, the Party leadership is reaching back to its past in an effort to reestablish a moral code.
"By learning from Lei Feng we can set up a new moral standard and fix the distrust and other moral issues in today's society," the official Xinhua newswire opined this week.
But to many Chinese, the return of Lei Feng as a role model looks like a case of the Party leadership telling the proletariat to do as they say, not as they do.
The hyper-concentration of wealth and power in China is dramatically demonstrated each year during the NPC meeting, when fleets of tinted-window Audis – the car of choice for Chinese government officials – take over the streets of Beijing.
"I think Lei Feng would be driving a Jiefang (a Chinese-made truck), not an Audi," said Shang Qingrui, a Mao Zedong impersonator who has been hired in the past to entertain NPC delegates and who says he's been contacted about doing another performance this year. "Actually, maybe if he were alive today, Lei Feng would be driving an Audi too."
The flashy cars that jostle with pedicabs on Beijing's streets are just the most visible example of China's huge and widening income gap, the biggest issue facing the Communist Party leadership as it enters a sensitive transition period. A World Bank report released this week named the "social risks of rising inequality" as one of the key obstacles to the country's continued economic development over the next two decades.
Meanwhile the rest of the city waits in worse-than-usual traffic jams, and impoverished petitioners from around the country are blocked from going anywhere near the Great Hall of the People to air their grievances. The petitioners, often motivated by land disputes involving government-backed developers, can spend weeks or months in secret detention as punishment for defending their homes.
"It's very difficult for [the Communist Party]to preach Lei Feng, when the corruption is so widespread," said Zhu Dake, a professor in the Institute of Cultural Criticism at Tongji University in Shanghai. "If [party officials] wanted to show hard work and plain living, they could get rid of all the government cars and walk or bike to the office instead. That kind of 'learn from Lei Feng' campaign would be influential on citizens."
The flashy cars that jostle with pedicabs on Beijing's streets are just the most visible example of China's huge and widening income gap, the biggest issue facing the Communist Party leadership as it enters a sensitive transition period. The party begins a once-in-a-decade power transfer this fall that will see Mr. Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao gradually step aside in favour of a new generation headed by Xi Jinping, the current vice-president. A World Bank report released this week named the "social risks of rising inequality" as one of the key obstacles to the country's continued economic development over the next two decades.
After decades of criticizing the U.S. political system as corrupted by money, the NPC is now stuffed with mega-rich business people who have used their Communist Party contacts to advance their business empires, and then turned that money back into political influence.
Some Communist Party leaders have tried to seize on the wealth gap as an issue as ahead of the power transition, which will see seven of the current nine members of the Standing Committee of the Politburo retire and be replaced by younger leaders.
This fall, the party begins a once-in-a-decade power transfer this fall that will see Mr. Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao gradually step aside in favour of a new generation headed by Xi Jinping, the current vice-president.
Bo Xilai, a leading Politburo contender who has cast himself as a Maoist throwback, has seized on Lei Feng's return. A Communist Party boss in the southern city of Chongqing, Mr. Bo has made himself the champion of "red" culture in today's Communist Party, encouraging Chongqing residents to sing Mao-era songs and bombarding them with text messages of his favourite quotes from the Chairman.
"Learning from Lei Feng is not only a thing that ordinary people should do," Mr. Bo said in a speech this week, according to the Chongqing Daily newspaper. "The cadres of the party and government should lead by their own example."
Mr. Bo's chances of securing a Politburo seat are waning amid a spreading scandal involving his former chief of police and reports of his son's playboy lifestyle.
Little wonder that the Party decided to give Lei Feng a new look on the 50th anniversary of his death.
An iconic black-and-white photograph of the model soldier standing on Tiananmen Square was again distributed by Xinhua this week – with one eye-catching change. He's now shown in colour, and clutching a shopping bag in his left hand.
The shopping bag was edited out in the 1960s to preserve Mr. Lei's austere image. Its return in 2012 is perhaps an acknowledgment that there was more to learn from Lei Feng than China's leaders had previously let on to the masses.