'We must start by eradicating bad habits'
Wang Tao, Better-manners campaigner
Interview by Jonathan Watts
Thursday August 9, 2007
Despite its grand imperial history, Beijing is proud of the down-to-earth character of its people. On the positive side, this means a relaxed and friendly informality, a mischievous sense of humour and a refreshing frankness in debate. But - more irritating to many foreign visitors - it can just as easily mean spitting, cursing, queue-jumping, littering, shouting on mobile phones and smoking and urinating in public places. For many, these are the habits of a lifetime, but with China trying to use the Olympics to reclaim its position as one of the world's great civilisations, the government has suddenly launched a drive to reach what it perceives as international standards of politeness. Wang Tao is in the frontline of that campaign. A public employee, he is a member of the Green Woodpecker organisation, which is dedicated to fostering civic manners. "Our programme aims to improve the image of Chinese people in the outside world. I heard that China is the bottom three of a ranking of manners towards tourists. To change that, we must start by eradicating bad habits."
Spitting is the top target. "Currently about 60% to 70 % of citizens don't spit in public places. By the time of the Olympics, our target is to raise this figure to 80%." Working with the municipal government's Ethics Development Office, Wang's group stage public education events in Tiananmen Square, handing out tissues to people who spit so they can wipe their phlegm off the pavement. "We don't force them. If they are unwilling to clean it themselves, we will do it in front of them in the hope that they will realise they have done wrong." But with the Olympic countdown ticking, he says the authorities are getting tougher. "Now people caught spitting in public get a 50 kuai penalty. On one day in May, we worked with municipal officials and fined about 60 people." Last year, the Beijing police unveiled a hi-tech "mobile command car" - equipped with a satellite link and rotating video cameras - apparently designed to spot spitters and present them with video evidence.
Wang acknowledges that the temptation to spit in Beijing is greater than in most other Chinese cities because of the dust and pollution, but he says the campaign to stop is making headway among the educated middle class. "Our next plan will focus on migrant workers. We will give them pamphlets and conduct lecture at construction sites."
There are also government campaigns to dissuade parents from allowing their children to defecate on the road, to upgrade public toilet and to ban smoking in buses and outdoor workplaces. Wang's organisation of 600 volunteers is trying to stop drivers from speeding and ignoring traffic signals - sometimes at personal risk. "We usually try persuasion. But we once stood on the road forming a line to stop people from running red lights."
He hopes this civil-society work will lead to bigger things next year. "I have applied to be an Olympic volunteer. If everything goes well I will be working at the Olympic stadium next August. Volunteering work has had a big influence on my life. I feel happy and more open minded. I don't care about personal gain or loss as much as before."