Hit litterbugs with fines, not insults

Updated: 2013-11-16 00:24

By Raymond Zhou (China Daily)

  Print Mail Large Medium  Small 分享按钮 0


Hit litterbugs with fines, not insults

Pang Li / China Daily

A lack of civility in urban China is a subtle testament to a much deeper rift in behavioral patterns that result from social divide.

A few days ago, staff of the Beijing Metro ruffled feathers when they called some passengers "locusts". A photo posted on the subway's micro blog showed an almost vacant subway carriage littered with paper and other waste. "This is Line 10 in the trail of ‘locusts'," it said, sarcastically, adding that "Beijing does not welcome those who willfully spoil its environment."

The remark was widely considered discriminatory. And the company removed it, saying it was the act of a few editors and implied that it was not properly authorized.

Authorized or not, the editors did give vent to frustration partly brought by the sustained wave of urbanization as large numbers of new arrivals find themselves in urban surroundings they did not grow up in. Sure, many of them are just tourists, not permanent settlers, but I do not believe the culprits deliberately wanted to "spoil" a public space in the city. Those who littered the subway carriage probably gave little thought to what they were doing. They were used to throwing things away in this manner even in their hometown, which I'm sure they have affection for.

Traveling from Beijing South Railway Station by subway just after the Chinese New Year this year, I noticed a family of out-of-towners who were sharing snacks and throwing stuff onto the floor. As I thought of gently saying something, the mother stunned me into silence when she seized the opportunity of the door opening and emptying out her tea bottle, with dregs, onto the platform.

What should I have told this lady, who could be a warm and friendly person in her daily life? No one has probably told her that she should put things she does not want into rubbish bins. Subway cars and platforms are not rubbish bins. Even though the subway does have cleaners, we all have a responsibility to keep it clean.

Even if she has heard of warnings of "Do not litter", habits do not change overnight. Well, in her hometown there may not be rubbish bins in public places after all. The litterbugs that Beijing subway griped about are a small reminder of the urban-rural gap that, though it has narrowed in the past few decades, still plagues China.

When I first toured the US in the 1980s, I was impressed not by the skyscrapers, but by the cleanliness of the suburbs and rural areas — more so than the downtowns. In China, it is the opposite. The closer a place is to the center of a city, and the bigger the city, the cleaner it usually is. In the old days, only a few metropolises and a few boulevards were presentable. Nowadays many second- and third-tier cities are sprucing up.

If you venture out to the far outskirts of a city or visit a small town, you will instantly know that street cleaning is not a daily activity. Whenever I go back to my hometown, which is a small place in a very prosperous province, I get the feeling that keeping the streets and public spaces clean is a somewhat foreign notion reserved for big occasions. Had the littering in the Beijing subway car happened in my hometown, nobody would have batted an eye, let alone posted a critical blog complete with photos and mockery.

As lately as a few decades ago, the great bulk of China's population lived in rural areas. They were not allowed to search for jobs in cities. In the most stringent era, they had to obtain special permits to visit a city. Now more than half the nation is made up of urbanites. The countryside is increasingly romanticized, from a backwater of poverty to a sanctuary of Zen living. Given the pace of urbanization and the context of all the dizzying changes, it is almost a miracle that China's cities, big and medium-sized, are relatively dirt free and crime free — except for the smothering smog, that is.

But urban management has the unenviable job of making a city livable while most of the forces affecting it are beyond its control. The central government makes decisions and allocates resources that disproportionately go to big cities, which, in turn, create jobs and attract an endless flow of migrant workers. The go-west campaign in the past decade has increased the attractiveness of the hinterlands and slowed down the human flow. But still, everything being equal, young people would prefer to live in cities, and usually the bigger the city the better.

In a way, cities have to tip the scale to keep the inflow in check. For example, cities like Beijing have imposed a restriction for minimum space per renter as a safety measure in case of fire, which has in effect raised rents and made the city unaffordable for the "ants tribe", the army of job seekers eking out a living in squalid basements. But is it fair? It depends on whether you are part of the middle class or still struggling at the bottom of the social ladder.

Urbanization as a result of economic growth creates its own problems, which are shared by almost all countries. The urban-rural divide was exacerbated in China when migration was held in check for non-economic purposes. Ideally, people should settle in places they can afford to live in. But people can be ambitious and upwardly mobile and it is cruel to rob them of the dream to make it big in a big city.

Civics lessons are a way of raising awareness among those previously not familiar with them. But it usually works for the young generation who get a head start in school. I have seen children who discourage their parents from jaywalking while adults get the idea only when they are levied a penalty for it. Many cities in China have printed and circulated pamphlets of do's and don'ts, but Chinese have developed inertia toward campaigns of all kinds, which work in fits and starts at best.

Gentrification in either landscapes or civics is a process. While outside forces such as education may work to some extent, change ultimately has to come from within. Only when people feel it is the right thing not to litter or spit or jaywalk will they refrain from doing it even when no one is watching. With mobility so high, the whole country has to reach middle-class income and, with it, the level of education and civilities that accompany it.

The same goes for residents and tourists. In the 1990s scenic sites looked as if a planeload of rubbish had been scattered over them. Marked improvements have come from more rubbish bins, more cleaners and, most importantly, a perceptible change in behavior. When everyone around you makes the extra effort to place a soft drink can into a rubbish bin, you would feel awkward to throw it onto the ground.

For those who ignore the warning and deliberately "spoil" the environment, the most effective way is to slap them with a financial penalty, or force them to clean up after themselves. Shaming them with the unflattering nickname of "locusts" may be ineffective. Rather than reminding them of their outsider status, it is better to let them be proud of a city where they can feel totally at home.

Contact the writer at raymondzhou@chinadaily.com.cn.