One day all cities could look like this

On the streets of Zhanjiagang, people do not spit, or smoke, or drop litter. Citizens must be polite and well-groomed at all times. It's spooky, really. Welcome to China's 'National Sanitational City'. By Teresa Poole
Click to follow
The Independent Online
It is 9.30 on a Thursday morning at the Communist Party school in Zhangjiagang city. A group of 95, mostly retired, cadres from Wuxi city file into the lecture hall for a lesson on the "Construction of the Two Civilisations". Qin Hao, the ebullient deputy head of the party school, takes to the stand. "If there is no material civilisation, the country cannot develop," he tells his audience. "But if there is no spiritual civilisation, that is also the case. Zhangjiagang is an example of the success of the Two Civilisations."

Zhangjiagang is China's official model city, a place where the masses get richer and also behave themselves. On 13 May 1995, President Jiang Zemin came to see for himself. "President Jiang only came for one day, but he was very happy," beams Mr Qin. The president wrote a 16-character salutation to the city, which is now widely quoted and has been cast in stone in front of the Zhangjiagang municipal government offices: "Unity and struggle; forge ahead with heavy burdens; put more pressure on yourself; dare to be the first."

Plenty of others have followed in Mr Jiang's footsteps. Last year, 650,000 people came in organised tours from other parts of China to learn from Zhangjiagang. Like the group from Wuxi, when they ventured out through the city, they found that Zhangjiagang people no longer smoke or spit in the streets, and do not drop litter. It is not surprising that the locals have cleaned up their act; when the "spiritual civilisation" campaign began in earnest, anyone caught breaking the rules was forced to wear a yellow vest and stand in public for an hour of shame. Nowadays, people spitting or smoking outside are still fined 5 yuan (40p).

Zhangjiagang is unlike anywhere else in China. Its famous city-centre "Pedestrian Street" is acclaimed as the cleanest road in the country, with a dozen sweepers employed to keep it spotless. According to the plaques at the Number One Department Store, the shop is not only a "Civilisation Unit", and a "Double Civilised Unit", but also a "Star Reputation Shop of China". One group of visitors from the teeming metropolis of Shanghai was wandering down the street, clearly impressed. "Everyone is very polite; in every shop it is the same. And this is the cleanest street in China," pronounced 67-year-old Wang Zhiling. The restaurants in nearby Food Street are sparkling. The vast central trade market is a veritable model of vegetable selling; under the regulations, all the farm produce must be scrubbed clean before going on sale. Even Zhangjiagang's public toilets are useable.

The booming southern economic zones may have dazzled the world with a decade of double-digit economic growth, but that is not enough for Zhangjiagang. In this pocket of reforming China, wide avenues are flanked by well-designed modern office buildings, peasants are housed in rows of spacious two-storey villas, and thriving township enterprises have transformed the locals' pay-packets. But here the municipal officials are also determined to try to construct - or, if necessary, impose - a civil society. Crime, corruption, unemployment and environmental destruction may have afflicted most of China over the past decade, but in Zhangjiagang they have tried to do something about it.

The most didactic phase of the personal behaviour adjustment plan began in August 1994, when the strict rules were enforced in Pedestrian Street. After President Jiang's visit a year ago, they were extended to the whole of Zhangjiagang. At the city's propaganda department, the director, Zhou Baoxing, explains: "At the beginning, some people who violated regulations were ordered to wear yellow vests. But now people are quite obedient, so we do not need to use it."

Mr Zhou has his own utopian vision of the future: "Zhangjiagang should resemble Singapore by day, and Hong Kong by night." In pursuit of the latter, the city's municipal departmental buildings are lit up with strings of coloured bulbs after dusk. More ambitiously, the Jinzhou Group Zhangjiagang City Chemical Plant has been built to resemble a Disneyland castle, lit by coloured floodlights after dusk.

To Western eyes, Zhangjiagang offers both the impressive and the ridiculous. Well-built multi-lane highways lead into town, under banners reading in English: "Welcome to the National Sanitational City". People are polite and friendly, just as they have been told to be in the government-issued Civilised Citizen's Handbook, of which 200,000 copies have been distributed. This 165-page guide lists the "Six Do's and Ten Don'ts", covering everything from not driving through red lights to being strict with personal grooming. It brings to mind one's worst experiences of the Girl Guides.

Compared with the rest of China, this miniature "nanny state" offers clean air, environmental awareness, and a tranquil society. No motorbikes or tractors tear through the city, and polluting factories have been shut down. Yet it is almost too quiet, with none of the bustle and clamour associated with Chinese street life. Peddlers' stalls are forbidden, and the thoroughfares seemed eerily deserted, with most of the population busy in factories and 1,200 foreign-invested enterprises. It is strangely reminiscent of a newly-built Milton Keynes.

In other words, the benefits must be offset against the demands of such a carefully engineered society. Hanging down the outside of my hotel were banners reading: "All citizens to participate in deepening the construction of the national civilised city movement." For Zhangjiagang's government officials, this means attending classes two nights a week, for two hours each time, to study China's new laws and regulations, or perhaps the latest national anti-corruption drive, all part of the city's drive to produce a new generation of technocrats. Even the new class of entrepreneurs must attend once a week. One tobacco dealer said: "If I do not go, someone will come to my home on Sunday and make me study then."

However laudable, such directives for society's self-improvement come packaged with all the heavy-handed overtones of old-style Communism. Zhang Kaiping, vice-director of the propaganda department, said: "The main purpose is to improve the quality of the people so that they can love socialism, the country, the society and the people."

Zhangjiagang's rise to national fame started in March 1995, when officials from 32 other provinces visited the city and it was deemed fit to be a national example. The president's day trip two months later set the seal on the city's role as a propaganda model. Over the past year, President Jiang has increasingly cast himself as the champion of old-style socialist virtues and exhorted cadres to "talk politics" rather than just concentrate on maximum economic growth. Zhangjiagang is now held up as proof that the "Two Civilisations" can be attained: "material civilisation" meaning improved standards of living, and "spiritual civilisation" meaning everything from loving the Communist Party to not spitting. Even better, unlike most places in China, here party membership is actually rising.

Thus in October 1995, having been selected by the Central Propaganda Ministry and the State Council, Zhangjiagang played host to the National Spiritual Civilisation Construction Experience Exchange Meeting, attended by top propaganda officials from all over China. A series of lengthy articles lauding Zhangjiagang appeared in the People's Daily. The following month, in one two-week period, some 130,000 people rolled up to "Learn from Zhangjiagang".

As a portent of good things to come, Zhangjiagang was hardly a risky choice for President Jiang. It is a Yangtze river port city, 125km north- west of Shanghai, in one of China's richest and most fertile regions. The area controlled by Zhangjiagang's municipal government includes the main city and 25 neighbouring county towns, with the total population a manageable 820,000.

The city's biggest break came in 1992, when Peking gave the go-ahead for a Duty Free Trade Zone around Zhangjiagang's port, the only such inland zone in China. Since then, the economy has boomed, with a 1995 growth rate of 31 per cent. Urban employees earned an average 7,178 yuan (pounds 575) per year, while per capita income for peasants is 4,300 yuan (pounds 345), respectively twice and nearly three times the national average. Behind the statistics, Zhangjiagang has a lot of well-off families.

In Miao Qiao township, for instance, the population of 10,000 farming households are producing 80 million sweaters a year. The Miao Qiao sweater market, with 5,300 stalls, sees 50,000 visiting traders on a busy day. An ordinary stall-holder, Shen Yungen, whose home manufactures 300 sweaters a week, said he had sold 20,000 yuan (pounds 1,600) worth that day. And, yes, the market is very clean. "I only smoke at home now. Because the environment is cleaner, it has an effect on me," said Mr Shen.

To see how the model peasants now live, one is taken to Xiaoheba "village", on the outskirts of Zhangjiagang city, an enclave of detached houses, carefully laid-out gardens, and a fountain in the shape of a giant cabbage. Like most of Zhangjiagang's "rural" inhabitants, these villagers now work in profitable township factories and enterprises, while farming has been collectivised by the village for economy of scale.

In Xiaoheba, Ge Juncai, 50, spent 35,000 yuan (pounds 2,800) building his house, which, like every home in the village, has a list of Xiaoheba's "12 Rules" inside (as well as the Six Do's and the Ten Don'ts). These cover everything from keeping the household clean to being friendly to one's neighbours and shunning superstitious activities. Which of the rules has Mr Ge broken? "None," he insists. Two accompanying representatives from the village committee office nod approvingly.

Meeting the party secretary of Zhangjiagang's Public Security Bureau brings further tales of improved behaviour. Zheng Guoqing says: "In the past, due to the quality of the people, there were a lot of conflicts, resulting in violence and crime. Now the local people committing crimes are few. That is one success of the 'Two Civilisations' theory." Three- quarters of the 500 arrests last year were from the 100,000 migrant workers from other provinces, who flock to work in the city's factories.

Any visitor with half an eye on Chinese history knows, however, of the previous models dreamt up by the government. During the Cultural Revolution, Chairman Mao famously told the country to "Learn from Dazhai", a farming village in Shanxi province which had achieved remarkable agricultural successes. Only afterwards did everyone discover that the grain output figures had been fake, and most of the construction work had been done with the help of the People's Liberation Army.

At Zhangjiagang's party school, Mr Qin rejects any such parallel. "With Dazhai, there were people in central government who gave instructions to make Dazhai an example. Zhangjiagang is different. Zhangjiagang's people by themselves made Zhangjiagang. Afterwards, because it was so successful, it attracted the attention of the central government."

It is hard not to feel that Zhangjiagang's status as the new model city may prove a curse rather than a blessing for its well-ordered citizens. Unrealistic expectations emanating from Peking's propaganda bosses could become an insupportable burden. Mr Qin himself strikes a note of caution: "To improve the quality of people's behaviour cannot be achieved by imposing things in a short period. Some regulations can be imposed on people, like no smoking in certain areas. But to make people polite, and service attitudes more pleasant, and to make people know about proper etiquette, that should be through education. And that takes time."

The Civilised Citizen's Handbook

SIX DO'S

1. Love the motherland, construct the port city, unite to advance, dare to be the first.

2. Be friendly, be helpful, behave politely, respect oneself.

3. Be harmonious at home, friendly to neighbours, obey the family planning rules, give priority to soldiers and their families.

4. Respect teachers and education, respect the elderly and care for the young, believe in science, change old customs.

5. Pay attention to personal grooming, beautify the environment, plant trees, protect flowers.

6. Be law-abiding, maintain public virtue, be honest, provide good service.

10 DON'TS

1. No rudeness, or fighting.

2. No spitting, or littering.

3. No driving through red lights, or obstructing traffic.

4. No disorderly parking.

5. No unlawful peddlers stalls, or unlicensed trading.

6. No unpermitted construction, or damage to the image of the city.

7. No rubbish to be piled in the wrong place.

8. No graffiti, or unlawful advertising posters.

9. No destruction of vegetation, or misappropriation of green spaces. 10. No digging or unlawful knocking down of buildings.

(Published by the Zhangjiagang city Spiritual Civilisation Construction Committee. April 1995 edition.)

Comments