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A new model

By He Na (China Daily)
Updated: 2009-09-29 09:01

Oilman Wang Jinxi, father of hybrid rice Yuan Longping, bus-ticket seller Li Suli, astronaut Yang Liwei, hurdler Liu Xiang. These seemingly unrelated names have one thing in common - they have all been designated a model worker.

Model worker is an honor bestowed on people who have made a significant contribution to the country through their hard work. It was one of China's most prestigious honors under the old planned economy.

However, with the country's rapid economic and social development, the criteria of what defines a model worker have undergone a sea of change.

The nationwide selection of model workers began in 1950, and was based on the endurance of hardship and the sacrifice of self-interests. The model worker was expected to inspire the masses and inculcate such virtues as hard work, modesty and patriotism.

A new model

According to Liang Jun, China's first woman tractor driver and also one of the first batch of national model workers, various competitions were held to choose model workers in the early years of New China. "One who works like an old bull" was a common description of model workers at that time.

"I remember that once I worked non-stop for three days in the fields. I was so tired that I could have even slept through an earthquake. My colleagues told me later that they found me sleeping soundly in a mud hut," recalls Liang, with smile.

Manual laborers, such as toilet cleaners, coal miners and construction workers, were typical model workers during that period. "Old bull" was how most people referred to them.

More than 460 people were selected as China's first batch of model workers in 1950, among whom 158, or 34 percent, were farmers and 113, or 24.3 percent, were workers. Only 7.1 percent were from the managerial class.

As time went by, the composition of model workers also changed. In the 1960s, for the first time, model workers began to be drawn from diverse fields, such as education, culture, sports and media.

The selection of model workers was suspended during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), resuming only in the late 1970s. Deng Xiaoping, chief architect of China's reform and opening-up, put forward the ideas of "technology is productivity" and "intellectuals are part of the working class", triggering new respect for intellectuals and knowledge.

A new model

The father of hybrid rice Yuan Longping (pictured above), basketball player Yao Ming (pictured blow) and hurdler Liu Xiang are some of the nation's most famous model workers.

Many of those chosen as model workers at this time were scientists, engineers and educationists, such as scientist Jiang Zhuying who brought Chinese color television technology up to world standards.

As China entered the 1990s, more and more manual labor began to be replaced with machines. This was especially true after the promulgation of the Labor Law in 1994, which clearly prohibited unlimited overtime.

More importantly, entrepreneurs and managers with insight and courage began to play a more important role in China's switch from a planned to a market economy.

A new model

More than 340 entrepreneurs and managers were elected during the eighth National Model Worker Conference in 1989. In 1995, 2,873 people were elected as national model workers, among whom heads of enterprises numbered 409.

"It is not surprising that nowadays when you open the resumes of most of the entrepreneurs and managers of large-scale enterprises, they were all once elected as model workers," says You Zhenglin, associate professor of sociology at China University of Politics and Law.

"Few frontline workers get the honor now, because they have been left far behind by the intellectual group in creating wealth for the country," says You.

In a bid to balance the proportion of model workers from different fields, the State Council decided before the opening of the 1989 conference to guarantee that at least a third of the elected model workers would be frontline workers. It also revised and standardized the selection criteria for model workers.

In 2005, the model worker title was bestowed on basketball player Yao Ming and hurdler Liu Xiang, and Liu Yonghao, one of China's richest men then. The same year, the people's government of Dalian honored seven foreign managers working in the Dalian Development Zone with the title of model worker.

Today's model workers are not laborers in the traditional sense. Those who work in air-conditioned rooms, frequent five-star hotels and drive luxury cars are also deemed entitled to the honor.

Dissatisfaction over the changing profile of model workers has sparked quite a heated debate on the Internet.

According to Professor Zhou Xiaozheng of Renmin University of China, it is a little strange to honor athletes as model workers. "We cannot take athletes as common people, for their success and achievements owe not only to their efforts, but also a lot to the physical quality they are born with," he says. "It is not easy for common people to follow their model."

Some online posters have even sarcastically suggested new selection criteria such as being good at flattery, able to win the hearts of leaders and being skilled at self-promotion.

But many continue to support the new breed of model workers, saying they don't necessarily have to imply meager incomes and low living standards.

"The assessment procedures to select model workers need to be revised, because today's society needs knowledgeable and skilled workers," says professor Zhou Yunlong, of Northeast China Institute of Electric Power Engineering.

"A model worker is one who excels in his field of work, reflecting the values most cherished by a society at a particular period in time.

"Although Yao is not a laborer, he works very hard and worked his way to win honors for the country. He truly is a model worker."