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More than 60 years after his death, the legend of a selfless Canadian doctor is helping China's Communist Party seize a propaganda victory from the disaster of the SARS epidemic.

After slipping toward obscurity for years, Norman Bethune is once again being celebrated almost daily in the Chinese media. The story of the Montreal surgeon, who died in 1939 while serving the Communist army, has been revived to give a heroic lustre to the "people's war" against the deadly new disease.

Whenever a Chinese doctor dies from the SARS virus these days, he is invariably lauded as "a Dr. Bethune of the new century."

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When military volunteers go to Beijing to fight the disease, they are referred to as Bethunes. When medical workers spend long hours in dangerous conditions, they are praised for "carrying forward the spirit of Bethune."

When a new hospital for patients of severe acute respiratory syndrome was hastily built near Beijing this month, one of China's leading artists presented a portrait of Dr. Bethune to the medical staff. "I specially drew a picture of Dr. Bethune to praise these angels in white and to encourage them," the artist said.

After the SARS-related death of Deng Lianxian, a hospital doctor who happened to be a local Communist Party secretary, the propaganda machinery went into overdrive and Dr. Bethune's name was invoked again.

"Deng Lianxian was a great Communist Party member, a medical worker with lofty ethics, and a doctor -- like Norman Bethune -- in the new era, who boldly faced viruses, rescued the dying and cured the sick," the party newspaper intoned. "With him as our model, the united will of the masses is like a fortress."

The revival of the Bethune legend is part of an ambitious propaganda strategy by China's Communist rulers, who hope to make political gains from a crisis that began as a scandal of deceit and denial.

Dr. Bethune is the perfect symbol: He was a famed surgeon and loyal Canadian Communist who came to China as a volunteer to help Mao Tsetung and the Communist army in their war against Japanese invaders in the late 1930s. He died of blood poisoning contracted while operating under arduous conditions on the battlefield.

After the Communist victory in 1949, he was elevated to the highest ranks of China's revolutionary pantheon, becoming the best-known Western martyr in the country. Mao praised him for his "spirit of absolute selflessness" and his "utter devotion to others."

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The Bethune story is still told in Chinese school textbooks, but his name has been fading from the media in recent years. He isn't the most famous Canadian in the Middle Kingdom any more. That title goes to the young Canadian comedian Mark Rowswell, known here as Dashan.

But when Beijing was forced to abandon its cover-up of the extent of the SARS epidemic last month, it needed the old revolutionary rhetoric. Suddenly it needed the Bethune legend again.

The result is a huge propaganda campaign with echoes of the mass-mobilization campaigns of the Maoist era.

Anti-SARS billboards portray the revolutionary image of clenched fists. Communist slogans, such as "people's war," are being revived.

Doctors and nurses are lauded as "white-coated warriors" on the "front line" of the "battlefield without smoke." The volunteer role of the People's Liberation Army in fighting the disease is constantly emphasized.

Some medical workers who died from SARS have been given the title of revolutionary martyrs, a term previously given to military casualties such as the three Chinese who were killed by a U.S. bomb in Belgrade in 1999, and a Chinese fighter pilot who was killed in a collision with a U.S. spy plane in 2001.

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The party's propaganda chiefs have openly acknowledged their strategy.

In an official directive on April 26, the party's Central Propaganda Department said it was "necessary to vigorously propagandize the moving deeds and spirit of sacrifice on the part of medical personnel on the front line of prevention and treatment. . . .

"The greater the trials and tribulations, and the more precarious the situation, the more necessary it is to promote the great national spirit," added Li Changchun, a member of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party's Central Committee.

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