When they are abroad, Chinese officials like to boast of their country’s “five thousand years of civilization.” But at home, the government has long fretted its citizens are not civilized enough.
They jaywalk, officials complain; they spit; they litter; they curse at sports events; they cut in line.
And lest their bad manners embarrass visiting foreign leaders in November, when the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum meets in Beijing, the city fathers this week launched a “residents’ mass civilization practice campaign.”
When people in the west complain about living in a “nanny state” it is because the authorities try to stop them doing anything remotely risky. In China, the “nanny state,” with all the authoritarian gravitas the ruling Communist party can muster, tries to stop its citizens being naughty.
“You should always say “hello” “thank you” and “sorry,” insisted Tian Wensong at a press conference on Tuesday to launch Beijing's campaign, sounding for all the world like a kindergarten teacher.
Actually, Mr. Tian is the section chief responsible for the Promotion of Civilized Behavior in the Capital Civilization Office. It is a job akin to being a herder of cats, in a city where the key rule of behavior is “every man for himself.”
This is not the first such attempt to instill civility in Beijing residents. In the run-up to the 2008 Olympic Games the authorities cracked down on littering and disorderly bus-mounting habits, and they claim some success. “Most Beijingers now stand in line at bus stops of their own accord,” said Tian’s boss, Han Longbin.
Mr. Han said his department is still struggling with "traffic order and people crossing the road against red lights." And Tian offered a simple solution: “Do not rush to be first."
The officials gave few details of exactly how they will go about civilizing their citizenry, but promised “teach-ins” on green lifestyles and waste disposal; a campaign to make residents sign a pledge to be civilized; and a school essay competition to “guide students to be brilliant, courteous, civilized and responsible Beijingers.”
Han cautioned against expecting too much of the campaign. “Civilization cannot be built overnight,” he pointed out.