China steps up efforts to `civilize' its capital

As Olympics approach, officials campaign to stop spitting, shirtless men

September 16, 2002|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING -- The scene was orderly and civilized and most definitely manufactured, exactly what the Communist Party wants when it puts on a rally. Wu Lixin, a construction company boss, was exhorting his troops -- about 60 migrant workers in their hard hats -- to live up to the rally's prevailing message: "We must be civilized with our language, behavior and appearance!"

It sounded good, but one person in the second row couldn't help himself. As his boss spoke, the construction worker from Jiangsu province quietly worked up some saliva in his mouth and spit on the pavement next to his left foot, quickly concealing it with his dusty black work shoe.

It was a reflexive act of civil disorder, the sort of behavior that Beijing officials are trying to stamp out. With the nation's 53rd anniversary of Communist rule approaching next month, an important Party Congress in two months and the Olympic Games in 2008, officials say they are stepping up their campaign to "civilize" China's capital city.

"This year, our theme is to build a new Beijing to host the Olympic Games and try to be a civilized people," said Zhang Huiguang, director of Beijing's Capital Ethic Development Office. Now and next month, he added as if describing a military campaign, officials intend to escalate a "war against every uncivilized behavior to lend a hand in making the capital a civilized city."

Public spitting is at the top of a long list of perceived wrongs, but it remains pervasive despite crackdowns and anti-spitting propaganda. Other official pet peeves include shoving and cutting in lines, littering, illegal advertisements and graffiti, inconsiderate and unkempt taxi drivers, and cursing and misbehaving at public sports events.

Covering up

This summer, a hot and unusually humid one for Beijing, the primary targets of semi-official scorn were shirtless men and men wearing shirts rolled halfway up to let their bellies flop out. It was routine summertime comportment for an historically agricultural society, but officials in Beijing saw it as another potential international embarrassment.

They hope the residents will eventually see it that way, too. After 65 years, Zhang Zhixin says he does.

He had dressed shirtless all his life, shrugging off cold nights, ignoring bosses' admonitions, defying the wishes of Communist Party cadres. Even when he made his living selling shirts, Zhang Zhixin refused to wear one himself.

Shame and public humiliation finally caught up with Zhang. Beijing Youth Daily, one of Beijing's best-selling newspapers, photographed Zhang and dozens of others in their full topless glory, in a lighthearted summer-long campaign.

"I just wanted to keep cool, but now I lost face for Beijingers," said the now-reformed Zhang, a squat man who showed of a sizable paunch in his shirtless days. "When people see my photo, they'll think the capital of China is uncivilized."

Spreading the word

Most people who spit, litter or roll their shirts up their chests can't help but recognize that the city around them is developing at a breathless pace. But they don't necessarily connect their lives with the modernizing ways of Beijing. Officials hope to address that with a public education campaign.

Officials wanting to spotlight social problems have powerful propaganda machines at their disposal -- the schools, the media and street-level community groups, all of them controlled by the Communist Party.

"In families and in communities and in various government departments, we aim to promote family ethics, social ethics and professional ethics," said Zhang of the Capital Ethic Development Office.

In many schools, for example, the office is promoting mini-projects to teach good public behavior. "They picked up used batteries to protect the environment," Zhang said of the city's elementary and middle school pupils.

"They used recycled paper for homework, and we educated them to respect the elderly and their teachers." Pupils were also taught "to give up their seats to senior citizens, to stand on one side of the escalators to let others pass, and to not make too much noise in public places."

The state-run media and street-level party committees play a role by using the theme of civilizing the capital in newspaper articles, television programming and instruction in informal community schools for seniors.

This intense behavior-modification effort stems partly from a deeply rooted anxiety in China, that the country might appear backward. That has become a more pressing worry because of the spotlight of the Olympics.

"With the Olympics, being civilized means being nice, not being seen as too outlandish or too crude," said Dali Yang, a China expert at the University of Chicago. "This underscores how collectivist this society can be when its collectivist face is put on the front burner."

`Hard to change'

Beijing officials know their campaign shows the limits of propaganda in the face of habits formed over thousands of years.

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