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Metro Beijing

Nurture new habits to beat nature

Updated: 2011-06-01 08:28
By Dinah Chong Watkins ( China Daily)

Nurture new habits to beat nature

If authorities can make rain, why can't they stop more people jumping lines?

It is 2 pm and there's a faint presence of the afternoon sun. The sky boils gray as brawny winds whip through the rose bushes in the yard, wildly snatching up red and pink blooms, leaving the ground strewn with petals and stripped branches on the vine. The air is swollen and humid. Then the rains come.

Like an experienced midwife, the scientists and bureaucrats at the China Meteorological Administration have become more adept at inducing rain over the last decade. With man-sized rockets full of silver iodide, the skies over the city mass together, dumping a lake-full of water in the space of a few moments. Then just as suddenly, the sun reappears and the dark mass moves to another district at the will of its earthbound masters.

Since the first leaf of salad was planted, rainmakers have been held in vaunted, almost mystical esteem. Parched farmland, barren grazing fields and drought have made opportune conditions for fervent prayer, secret tribal dances and hucksters looking for a quick buck. That the government has been able to wring water from the sky (albeit in limited quantities) at their command is nothing short of astronomical. So how is it then that they fall short at instilling simple manners in the general public?

Beijing in the 1980s meant a spittoon in every room was mandatory. Traversing sidewalks and hallways was a minefield of slippery hazards. Then the municipal government began a campaign of "no spitting". Government fliers were plastered on city walls, fines were gleefully given out by sanitation teams and a public fed up with the sights and sounds of loose loogies supported the cause. It's been more than 20 years now, but whenever someone fires up their throat, chances are he or she is an out-of-towner or over 70. This goes to prove that while cynicism often accompanies government campaigns, when the majority of the public agrees with it things can change.

A professor at Tsinghua University once explained that in societies where the population far exceeds the resources, people will resort to a survival-of-the-fittest mode and polite mannerisms fall by the wayside. Even when society advances and resources become plentiful, the behavior will still continue through to the next generation without planned intervention.

Even though Beijing's population is growing beyond what city planners had forecast, resources have kept up so far. Waiting in line is not a phenomenon anymore but a normal occurrence for the average city dweller. However, there is an unfortunate significant proportion that regularly jumps the line, flaunt the rules, cause dissension and lead others to follow. Anyone who has stepped into the role of judge, jury and prosecutor knows that it's futile to single-handedly change the mindset of a line-jumper. No matter how long or loud you honk the horn or berate the offender, they have perfected the art of obliviousness. Rather than being struck by remorse, they seem surprised at the rush of blood in your face and your animated appearance.

The "carrot and stick" concept - reward and punishment - divides the lines of East and West. Singapore is an ideal model of the "stick" approach, with small luxuries like chewing gum to operating your car controlled by fines and additional fees. China is more in the vein of, "I've got a stick but I may not use it", as seen in the recent ban on smoking in public places. Being a ban that has no punishment for offenders is somewhat akin to a shark without teeth.

Perhaps that's why "no line-jumping" has never taken off as a campaign. Imagine if the average citizen could fine the transgressor on the spot (a wish even better than going to Disneyland), there would be deadlock all over the roads as drivers jumped out of their cars to ticket each other and cashier lines would devolve into heated scrums.

I'm optimistic, though. With cleaner streets and the occasional hurricane-grade rainstorm, the powers-that-be have proved that they can bend the forces of nature and man. Now, if they could only do something about reality TV shows.

The author is a Canadian freelance writer based in Beijing. To comment, e-mail The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of METRO.


(China Daily 06/01/2011)