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CHINA SERVES UP HEROES TO FILL ITS MORAL VACUUM

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Hospital blackboards as big as pingpong tables urge visitors to emulate the patient in Room 25-27. Broad, multicolored strokes of chalk exhort: "Learn from comrade Huang Peixin."

Huang, a slight, shy Beijing traffic cop, is part of a huge government campaign against the moral vacuum bred by China's rush to get rich quick.Huang, 26, was stabbed in May while tackling a man who threatened a taxi driver with a knife. Despite being cut just below the heart, Huang chased his attacker down the street and disarmed him before collapsing.

Overnight, Huang became a media star. Government leaders came to his bedside to pay respects. His colleagues gathered in "study sessions" to exhort one another to copy his example.

All across China, officially instigated hero-worship has become the order of the day as the government heaps praise on a bank teller who fought off a thief, a soldier who rescued a woman from muggers and scores of other models of sacrifice and public service.

It might seem from the near-daily introduction of new heroes that selflessness is in plentiful supply. But officials say the contrary is true.

More common, they say, is the scenario that played out last month in south China when a 12-year-old girl fell into the sea and drowned while at least 50 people watched without offering help.

Other official reports have told of people demanding money before rescuing people in distress.

By freeing people to set up in business on their own, the government's economic reforms have made some Chinese richer. But many Chinese say they also have become greedier, selfish and callous.

Serious crime rose 16 percent last year over 1992. Drug abuse, prostitution and other vices are coming back. Family values, respect for elders and traditional ethics are becoming passe.

"Day after day you get assaulted by cases of greed, fraud, graft, intolerance, fatuous apathy towards others or coldblooded robbery in broad daylight," Li En, from Beijing, wrote recently in a letter to the editor of the official newspaper, China Daily.

Much of the problem stems from the fact that the reforms have loosened the government's grip over people's lives. Ten years ago, most Chinese depended on state food coupons, housing, medical care, and even funerals. So when the government demanded something in return - anything from swatting flies to reporting crime - people did their duty.

Now, millions of Chinese work for themselves or non-government companies. When the government says "fight crime," fewer listen.

"In the 1950s, the masses would report a crime immediately. Now they generally rarely do," said Zhou Shishang, a retired police officer who last year helped found a citizens' anti-crime group in Beijing.

The government has responded by beefing up its police force and passing tougher laws. The use of the death penalty has increased as authorities seek deterrents to crime, with more than 1,400 people executed last year, human rights groups say.

But, perhaps aware that toughness is not enough, officials also are trying to reactivate the communal spirit Zhou recalled from the 1950s, when the newly formed Communist government's calls for self-sacrifice and service were still novel and fresh.

Times have changed, but the government tactics are the same as they were then: endless meetings, mottoes and movies about patriotism and devotion to duty.

Even picking heroes for national study is a tried and trusted technique. In the 1960s, the party introduced Lei Feng, a young soldier who died backing his truck into a telephone pole - but not before he left a diary recording how he secretly washed his comrades' socks, helped old ladies across the street and did other good deeds.

The nation still marks Lei Feng Day each March, and new heroes like Huang are nicknamed "living Lei Fengs."

Lying in his hospital bed, surrounded by flowers, gifts, medals and newspaper clips sent by admirers, Huang said he was no match for Lei but that he tried to follow in the "Lei Feng spirit."

"What we should study is this sort of spirit, meaning the spirit we see in our daily lives of fighting for a just cause," he said.

But, he insisted modestly, he's no hero.

"I was only doing my job," he said.