The mother is, at first, barely visible in the cellphone video. She is on the ground as shouting breaks out in downtown Hong Kong. “Call the police!” someone yells. In the background, her toddler lets out a scared cry.
“Don’t be like this. You scared my kid,” the woman pleads, as the father scoops up the child.
Moments before, according to those who watched a scene that ricocheted across China, the woman helped the toddler urinate on the side of a busy street. When someone stopped to take pictures, the parents – who said they couldn’t find a bathroom and had placed a diaper beneath the girl – fought to snatch the phone.
The resulting scuffle led to the couple’s arrest, and outrage on both sides of Hong Kong’s border with China. Among Chinese, the photo and video-taking was an overreaction to the plight of a small child, and an invasion of privacy. In Hong Kong, the street-side urination came as just the latest example of “barbarous” behaviour among Mainlanders, whose proclivity for spitting, screaming into phones, urinating outside and smoking – all relatively common in China – has provoked rising tension.
But a short drive from the pee-stained Hong Kong street, one Mainland city is trying to pioneer a new kind of China, one that encourages a sort of civility that has proven difficult to inculcate amid the tumult of hundreds of millions transplanting themselves from rural to urban settings.
Just across the border from Hong Kong lies Shenzhen, where at least 14 million are now crammed into a place that three decades ago was home only to a small fishing village. Shenzhen was the first of China’s “special economic zones,” a place where the officially sanctioned practice of capitalism was tested before spreading across the country. It thrived, becoming one of China’s wealthiest cities and home to some of its biggest corporate successes.
Now, after lighting the way for China in economic terms, Shenzhen is seeking to lead the country down the path to a better kind of civil society. Other cities have tried; indeed, entreaties against spitting date back decades in China. But in many ways, Shenzhen is taking a much stricter approach, and may stand the best shot at success.
With a massive corporate sector and a young, well-travelled work force, the city boasts not just a familiarity with the outside world, but a willingness to experiment that is not as apparent elsewhere in China – from the top down. Last week, the local Communist Party Secretary, Wang Rong, presided over a conference on “building a civilized city,” where he urged Shenzhen to become “more international, more humane,” a place that is “the model of civilized conduct.”
The city has worked to codify that ambition. Last year, it introduced fines of about $35 for public spitting and littering, and followed it up by dispatching enforcement teams. In March, a strict new smoking ordinance was launched. Restaurant walls are now festooned with “no smoking” stickers; table-top placards warn that fines for lighting up can hit nearly $100, some 50 times higher than Beijing. (Restaurants themselves face $1,800 fines.)
Last year, Shenzhen sent officials to a busy construction zone to enforce “zipper merges,” the kind of courteous driving rarely seen on the country’s anything-goes roads. Jaywalking – common everywhere else in China – is met with gasps by onlookers who warn that fines are likely.
Together, it all marks a new desire to make sure Shenzhen’s modernity isn’t just visible in its high-rise skyline, but on its streets, too. “When civilized behaviours are not yet formed, we need force from outside to gradually guide people to form them,” says Xie Zhikui, director of the Social Development Institute, a Shenzhen think tank.
In many ways, though, the debate about street conduct is window dressing on a far larger issue. The immense wealth that China has accrued in the past 35 years has been built by a national lust for money. But Mr. Xie says the explosion of the market economy, and its rewards for individual striving, has “atomized” Chinese society.
“We have lost the old, traditional collective ways of helping each other. And we have not yet built up ways of caring for each other in an individualized society,” he says. “So the old has passed. And the new hasn’t arrived yet.”
Here, too, Shenzhen is trying to pioneer new ways. It has been a leader in giving blood, with 2.5 million donations In 20 years; it has signed up nearly one million people onto a roster of volunteers, who it encourages by saying “the hand that gives a rose remains scented with fragrance.”
The city even appears to be allowing a new kind of civic engagement: Last month, a group of opinion leaders together rated 47 government departments on their performance; three received the bottom rating. Such criticism might merit stern consequences elsewhere in China. In Shenzhen, those opinion leaders are, for now, planning a similar review next year.
Meanwhile, even new arrivals say change is visible on the streets. On a recent humid afternoon, a woman surnamed Su walks down a Shenzhen sidewalk, broom in hand. Part of the city’s street-cleaning team, she came two months ago from neighbouring Hunan province. “It’s like my hometown,” she says about Shenzhen. “People help me. I feel they are very civilized.” And, she adds: “I don’t see many people spitting.” When they do, they sometimes spit into tissue paper, then toss it in the garbage.
That’s not to say very old habits don’t die hard. Shenzhen, a city built out of nothing, is a congregation of immigrants, drawn from a broad expanse of China where there’s nothing rude about behaviour that leaves Hong Kong aghast.
In some places, it’s bad manners not to smoke. So Xu Zhijuan’s restaurant may count dozens of no-smoking signs, but when someone really wants to light up, she’s not about to say no to a customer – although she tries to hide them in private rooms on the second floor.
But, she adds, she kind of likes having a few less cigarettes around. “It makes the city cleaner,” she says. “The air is fresher.”