“Beijing’s latest army… of ‘civilisers’”

This piece from FT captures the feeling of efforts by the government to ‘civilize’ cities in one way or another- it’s always funny to see in real life:

Having groups of uniformed people trying to herd Beijing’s unruly throngs in one or the other direction, mostly by waving little banners in front of your face or shouting slogans that have become unintelligible – thanks to the thick Beijing accent blaring through cheap loud-hailers – is nothing unusual.

Many busy intersections in the city are staffed with traffic police, preoccupied with catching and fining drivers hitting the road on the one day their license plate is blocked, and traffic wardens, elderly men and women tasked with shooing pedestrians across the road when the lights turn green.

On Thursdays, they are joined by the ‘queuing ladies’, middle-aged women in maize-yellow shirts who try to convince commuters at bus and subway stations to wait in line and let others get off before they press on.

On any occasion considered important or sensitive by the ruling Communist party, the neighbourhood committees, its grassroots organisations, send out elderly party members to watch everyone. All along Chang’an Boulevard, the capital’s main thoroughfare, groups of three or four aunties and uncles with red armbands, foldable stools and thermoses can be spotted chatting the day away.

Grading places by their degree of civilisation might seem strange in the West, but not in China. Much like ‘harmony’, the word ‘civilisation’ is part of the ideology-speak the Communist party uses to rule this vast country. While ‘harmony’ refers more to the goal of avoiding conflict by ironing out differing views and interests, ‘civilisation’ means a set of behavioural rules.

Be polite – don’t push, shout, swear, spit, or engage in any other of those habits everyone around you displays every day.

As interpreted by the Chaoyang tracksuit volunteers, the push for ‘civilisation’ is not directed at big black cars with People’s Armed Police license plates – when they run red lights, the volunteers just look the other way. It does however include a rule not to sell fruit on the sidewalk in residential areas – carts doing that have all been driven away by the tracksuits over the past week.

But then, nobody is making a big fuss about this because it’s going to be over in no time. “Once the inspectors have left, we’ll send the volunteers home,” says the district official.


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