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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

The Graces to Grow With

From doves to toilets, a campaign for civility

By Kristi Heim / Beijing


BRIGHT YELLOW “CIVILIZED UMBRELLAS” made their debuts last year in Beijing’s most popular shopping areas. The idea was that people caught in a downpour could borrow them as a courtesy and return them later to any one of several department stores. Unfortunately, material desire won out over social responsibility — 80% of the umbrellas never came back. Like plush towels at a five-star hotel, they made irresistible keepsakes. Some Beijing residents blame migrant workers for the thefts. Still, stores are providing the umbrellas again this year, hoping a better return rate will signify a measure of social progress.

So goes the central government’s latest campaign to promote a China that is, in ways large and small, as modern as possible. The Chinese say that a journey of 1,000 li begins with but one step. Sometimes it is a stumble. Consider another recent attempt to “civilize” China. Some cities released doves in public squares as part of beautification campaigns. But a few citizens evidently thought the doves would look better on the banquet table: of 2,500 doves released last year near Beijing’s Modern Plaza shopping center, newspapers reported only 500 remained a few months later. Doves elsewhere met similar fates. Shanghai presented a flock as a gift to the city of Jinan in Shandong province, but many of these, too, apparently ended up as dinner. Both Beijing and Jinan were later chided in the Chinese media. At the same time, the northern port of Dalian — China’s sooty, industrial answer to Singapore — was praised as a model of urbanity. It has carried out a well-publicized campaign to curb socially graceless practices like spitting in public.

Beneath the rhetoric, the “spiritual civilization” effort reveals the challenge of perfecting Chinese society. Traditions that would support a more polite populace were weakened or obliterated during the Cultural Revolution. Since then, the nation’s moral base has been thrown askew. Deng Xiaoping’s exhortation, “To get rich is glorious,” has been a powerful slogan to change China’s thinking. But it is hardly an encouragement to be selfless.

The term “spiritual civilization” was first coined in 1981 by a Chinese Academy of Science official to counter the moral depredations of the Cultural Revolution. President Jiang Zemin has revived the phrase to promote modern values as well as adherence to the party line. But overuse has rendered it meaningless. Indeed, the Chinese for “civilized,” wen ming, can mean “model” in some contexts, such as model bus conductor Li Suli. She has been publicly lauded as a heroine of epic proportions. Why? She is admirably — though not spectacularly — good at her job. She gives directions to bewildered bus riders and notes points of interest along the route.

Being responsible in one’s job and caring for others are essential traits of an enlightened society, says a middle-aged newspaper editor. “Some people are irresponsible or selfish,” she says. “These factors are at the root of many problems.” But glorifying a few model workers may not be enough. China’s leaders feel reintroducing courtesy requires nothing less than a mass propaganda campaign. Consider the mindset to be changed: during the Cultural Revolution, says a Beijing teacher whose family was persecuted for having an upper-class background, being too polite could be disastrous. “People who displayed good manners were suspected of being bourgeois,” he says. “It was much better to appear poor and uneducated.”

Chinese society is obviously much different today, and the new campaign has had successes. Public toilets, long the bane of China visitors, are improving. Jiang once asked, “Why is it that China can build a satellite but not a toilet that doesn’t stink?” Well, judging from a week-long, $125,000 exhibit last June in Beijing, it now can. On display was a celebration of the nation’s “toilet revolution,” featuring photos and displays of current technology and bathroom chic from various Chinese cities. In contrast to the smelly outhouses of the past, China’s most-modern restrooms now suggest European villas, complete with gleaming tiles and trellises woven with plastic grape vines.

To some, no propaganda campaign or exhibit can resolve the deep-rooted mistrust of polite behavior preached by Chairman Mao Zedong. Says a 35-year-old university teacher: “China’s moral education system is fundamentally flawed. In elementary school, kids are taught to love communism and love their country before they know how to love their parents. It is not until college they learn that you shouldn’t steal other people’s things or throw trash on the ground.” To a young taxi driver, the answer is easy: a civilized person should be “polite, clean and obey traffic rules.” If only it were that simple. China has outgrown the time when a mass campaign could change national behavior. Not that the government has stopped trying. A document from the city of Guangzhou puts it into terms that everyone can understand: “The public toilet is the window onto a national civilization.”


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