Domestic Affairs

Unbelievable signboard-demolishing movement

By Huang Xiangyang (
Updated: 2011-04-30 10:27
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Shenzhen is known as an “experimental field” for China’s reform and opening-up. Shenzhen is famous for its tolerance and cultural diversity. Its economy has boomed riding on the innovative capacity and creativity brought by millions of migrant workers. It is China’s first and only “City of Design” named by UNESCO.

But the local authorities now seem determined to erase all these fond memories that one can possibly associate with the city.

A campaign to tear down thousands of shop signboards is in full swing. Those in favor want to replace them with signs of uniform style, designed by the local government, in preparation for the upcoming 2011 Summer Universiade. The replacement initiative started late last year without soliciting any public opinion, but it has been carried out forcibly despite opposition from most shop owners.

Almost all of the old signs have been torn down, and new ones are yet to be put into place. The shops that line the city’s bustling streets look as if they have all been ransacked.

And in a way, they have.

A signboard is a shop’s “face” and each one tells a unique story. It carries a historic, cultural or aesthetic significance that relates to customers in a special way. When we see the golden arches shaped like an “M”, we know it means a Big Mac and french fries at McDonald’s.And the sign bearing Colonel Sanders’ smiling face conjures up the image of fried chicken at KFC.

Any attempt to change an established sign could mean death for a business.

Yet what sounds like a tale of “One Thousand and One Arabian Nights” is close to becoming reality in China’s southern boomtown. Shop owners are disgruntled and doubtful.

They are asking questions: How can government officials dictate what kind of signboard is best for a shop? What criteria could they base their decision on? Why such a huge waste of taxpayers’ money?

Customers are at a loss. Some of them could not even find their favorite shops now that the signboards have been taken away. They, as citizens, have never been consulted on something that is said to be for their own good.

Yet the movement is going on surprisingly smooth. It is a victory of administrative power. But it smacks of ignorance, rudeness, intolerance for cultural diversity and disrespect for the rule of law.

Local authorities say that many of the signboards were not installed to conform to requirements set out in administrative rules. But if that is so, the local government should strengthen its rule enforcement by ordering those violators to mend their ways. It does not make any sense to force law-abiding shop owners to pay the same price. In any rule-based society, such a move may lead to lawsuits that entail astronomical compensation.

Shenzhen has not been short of news recently. Its decision to evict 80,000 “highly hazardous elements”, including people without a stable job, has stirred widespread controversy.

But the local authorities are bent on continuing efforts to make the city “safe and beautiful” – no matter the cost – prior to the Universiade, whose slogan is “Start Here”.

It is a pity that the city starts by slapping its own face, as it is doing now by removing these businesses’ signboards.