China’s Civilized Cities

“One small step towards the urinal, one big step for civilization!”

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Signs such as these in public bathrooms across China are a small part of the considerable pains being taken by the country’s government to encourage its citizenry to conduct itself in a manner befitting of China’s lofty aspirations as an emerging superpower. Today, in urban centres across China, new modes of behaviour are being promulgated through a government-sponsored project to create “Civilized Cities” (wenming chengshi). Responsibility for guiding this “noble pursuit of civilization” falls under the remit of the Central Civilization Committee in conjunction with the Propaganda Department. The end of this programme is the construction of a cultural consciousness to complement President Hu Jintao’s vision of the “Harmonious Society” (hexie shehui), the teleological end-point of his “Scientific Development” ideology (kexue fazhan guan).

The “Civilized Cities” campaign is the latest in a series of attempts to lay a “moral foundation” (daode jichu) for Chinese citizens. For instance, in the run-up to the 2010 World Expo, the Shanghai municipal government published a public information booklet titled: How to Be a Lovely Shanghainese: Instructions for the Shanghai Citizen. This volume encouraged Shanghai’s inhabitants to be on their best behaviour during the event, imploring them to refrain from the “seven don’ts”: (“don’t spit, don’t litter, don’t damage public property, don’t destroy public greenery, don’t dress in messy clothes, don’t smoke in public places and don’t use coarse language”).

Attempts such as this to create “moral citizens” are by no means a uniquely Chinese endeavour. Indeed, both Britain and the United States saw numerous comparable interventions during their respective Temperance Movements. However, whereas Western equivalents traditionally had their root in Christian doctrine, in China, efforts to improve the “quality” of the population are informed by the ancient Confucian notion of suzhi. This nebulous and loaded concept provides a framework for evaluating a person on the basis of their “essential nature”. Thus, a person’s suzhi can be determined by a number of factors including, but not limited to: birth, education, accent, table manners, knowledge of classic texts and personal hygiene.

Importantly, suzhi can, and should, always be improved. Indeed, the Chinese government has been very active in this regard. The “Civilized Cities” campaign can be read as the latest in a series of interventions to improve the suzhi of China’s citizens, which includes the One Child Policy and more recent government efforts to promote breastfeeding, and healthy-living for the elderly. The Hu-Wen administration, in particular, viewed the problem of uneven suzhi in China as a serious obstacle to the realization of a “Harmonious Society”. Complaints about the low suzhi of rural Chinese are frequently heard at the dinner tables of China’s growing middle class and bridging the widening chasm between China’s wealthy cities and its largely impoverished rural interior will arguably be the greatest challenge facing Xi Jinping and the new generation of China’s leaders.

–      Views expressed are entirely the author’s own unless stated otherwise –

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