Spit's Out, Polish In|
As Beijing Primps
For the Olympics
By MEI FONG
February 9, 2007; Page B1
BEIJING -- China wants to lower great expectorations before the Olympics.
On the streets of the country's capital, spitting -- often complete with loud throat-clearing, gurgling and an arc of phlegm -- is a frequent occurrence. The deeply ingrained habit is found among young and old and crosses class lines.
A 'Don't Spit' campaign during the SARS scare.
Now Chinese officials are mounting a renewed campaign to abolish this custom and other less-than-appealing practices -- including cutting in line and littering -- all to get the city camera-ready for the 2008 Games.
This week, Beijing city authorities announced they will step up efforts to fine spitters as much as 50 yuan, or $6.45, when they are caught doing the act in public -- a hefty sum by Beijing standards and equivalent to a day's wages for many laborers. Laws against spitting have existed for years, but haven't been strictly enforced.
At the same time, municipal authorities also announced Queuing Day. On the 11th of each month, city residents will be encouraged to stand in line at subway stops, post offices and various other public places. (The 11th was chosen because the two "1"s look like they are standing neatly in line.)
Until relatively recently, China's history of scarce resources discouraged people from waiting their turn in line. Crowds fighting to get onto buses and subways are a common sight, as are drivers abruptly cutting into different lanes.
Many Chinese people are afraid of fighting back against line-jumpers. "You never know when that person might be some important official," says Beijing resident Jason Chang, a 20-something teacher and Beijing resident. "Fighting for your rights -- it's still new in China."
For decades, public etiquette campaigns have periodically surfaced, sometimes spurred by concerns about health dangers of practices such as spitting. However, this latest push reflects Beijing's high hopes for the Olympics Games next year -- widely seen as China's coming-out party -- and its fear that rude habits could mar its chance to prove it is a world-class city.
These initiatives are "an urgent demand to build a more civilized city, and to improve people's behavior," says Zhang Huiguang, director of the Capital Ethic Development Committee, an etiquette group in the Beijing government that is focused on readying the city for the Olympics. Ms. Zhang, who has been dubbed Beijing's "Miss Manners" by local media, came to the group in 2002 from her previous post as vice director of the Chinese government's "Anti-Obscenity and Anti-Illegal Acts Department."
To raise Olympic spirits, the etiquette committee has created a slogan: "I participate, I'm devoted, and I will be happy!" Activities will include poetry competitions and the selection of goodwill ambassadors who will be lauded as "Top 10 Stars with high social morality."
The anti-spitting initiative targets a long-held habit in Beijing. The city's dry desert air and high levels of pollution can cause a rapid buildup of stringy phlegm, which is almost as swiftly deposited on sidewalks, drains and just about anywhere.
That's partly because traditional Chinese medical philosophy -- centered on ideas of balancing "hot" and "cool" elements in the body -- encourages expectoration as a healthy habit, as it theoretically removes a "hot" element from the body. Even the etiquette police don't go as far as recommending people swallow, not spit. Instead, they recommend discreet deposits on tissues or scraps of paper -- rather than on the ground or someone's shoe.
Under Ms. Zhang's direction, Beijing officials have come up with their own way to empirically measure its civilization-building progress.
Two years ago, the group sponsored an initiative by China's Renmin University to develop a "Civilization Index," a measure that aims to measure Beijing residents' civility through a set of questionnaires.
While there appears to be progress, it's gradual. According to the Index, 69% of Beijing folk sampled describe themselves as more civic-conscious last year, 4% higher than the year before, while the self-reported rates of littering and spitting decreased.
A 'No Spitting' sign near the Great Wall of China--part of a past government campaign to improve hygiene.
Of course, spitting and other off-putting habits aren't exclusive to Beijing. Last month, for example, Shanghai's municipal government outfitted the city's taxi cabs with what they called "spit sacks" to encourage drivers not to discharge on the streets.
Earlier this month the China National Tourism Administration launched a campaign encouraging the nation's outbound tourists to behave appropriately, and to avoid "talking loudly in public places," said Li Renzhi, a senior official with the tourism body.
During the 2003 SARS epidemic, Chinese authorities stepped up efforts to discourage spitting -- using publicity campaigns and posters -- with some success. Fears of infection helped curb the practice in southern China and Hong Kong, where the epidemic was most widespread.
However the effect was relatively short-lived in northern China. This inspired Beijing resident Wang Tao, 35 years old, to become an anti-spitting activist.
Last year Mr. Wang, an administrator, set up the Web site Jintan.org, loosely translated as "Forbidden Spit," to spread his message.
"I thought that during SARS, everyone knew not to spit and not to litter. But after SARS, people seemed to forget their good behavior. You can see spit on the ground everywhere, especially at the bus stations and pedestrian overpasses," says Mr. Wang, a thin man whose broad forehead gives him the air of a scholar.
The Forbidden Spit Web site has drawn over 100 volunteers, Mr. Wang says. The group has made 16 outings to wipe spit off the ground and pick up garbage.
When Mr. Wang spots someone in the act of spitting, he gives them a piece of paper and tries to persuade the person to wipe it up. Not surprisingly, he doesn't always win friends. Last summer, for example, a commuter shook his fist at Mr. Wang, yelling, "Mind your own business."
"Then I had to give up," said Mr. Wang, sighing. "I feel awful!"-- Sue Feng and Kersten Zhang contributed to this article