- The Washington Times - Friday, April 25, 2003

BEIJING Maybe people should have seen it coming. After all, they were already coping with the pigeon-breeding restrictions, the crackdown on hanging wet laundry from apartment windows and the tripling of fines for spitting on the street.
This, though, reached another level entirely. Dozens of unsmiling paramilitary People's Armed Police, down on their knees in full dress uniforms, resolutely employing putty knives to scrape chewing gum off the pavement of Tiananmen Square.
To those who watched the spent Juicy Fruit being cleared from the epicenter of Chinese nationhood in October, it was clear something major was afoot an official push to change habits formed in the alleys of old Beijing decades, even centuries, before the Communist Party made the law of the land.
Turning vanity to policy, China's younger, more image-conscious leadership is determined to drag Beijing's 13 million people through finishing school by 2008, when the Olympic Games arrive and the world comes calling.
Printed in state-controlled newspapers, grumbled about in street conversations and trumpeted on the sides of buses, the word is spreading: Act like representatives of a 21st-century China or face the consequences.
"Our living standards are rising. Shouldn't our civility rise too?" asked Liu Jinyuan, who drives a maroon taxi that charges about 15 cents a mile an upper-tier cab. Cheaper, more dilapidated taxis are being elbowed out by the government, a big change in a city where many people earn less than $100 a month.
Campaigns to control urban peccadillos are nothing new. The city-state of Singapore has worked at it for years, targeting everything from gum use (don't!) to toilet flushing (don't forget!). In New York, former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani bore down on graffiti, squeegee-plying panhandlers and sidewalk hot-dog stands.
But rarely has the problem been tackled so comprehensively, in a city changing faster than anyone imagined.
Beijing is an earthy town, brimming with peculiar customs passed down among its "laobaixing," or "hundred old names," the city's rank and file. The city's quirks lend it character and also, officials worry, backwardness.
During Beijing's sweaty summers, men roll up shirts to cool ample bellies, an ancient habit that one newspaper targeted with a shame campaign last summer. Public-toilet odors are the stuff of jokes. In winter, pedestrians often slip and fall on silver-dollar-size puddles of frozen spittle.
Old-world charm? Not to China's Beijing-based Communist Party leadership, which pins its survival on building a "well-off society" and wants to appear to maintain a level of progress befitting a nation on the rise.
"Any city in the world has these kinds of weird customs. Some of them need to be changed. And some of them need to be dropped," said Yue Shengyang, a Peking University professor who studies how the capital is changing.
Beijing is the front door of China for many foreigners, whose investments are coveted to keep the country's economy expanding. And it wouldn't do for potential investors to wander a landscape of street vendors, gum-encrusted plazas and laundry-festooned apartment blocks.
"Beijing is all so modern now. And attitudes must be modern," said Yu Changjiang, the director of Beijing's Tourism Administration, who grew up here. "People need to go back to their countries and say, 'Beijing is beautiful and Beijing and its people are clean.' And then more people will come."
Jia Qinglin, a new member of the party's Politburo Standing Committee, said recently that Beijing must "establish a new image of civility." He identified five problem areas: language, behavior, service, etiquette and the environment.
"For Beijing," Mr. Jia said, "nothing concerning the construction of spiritual civilization is trivial."
"The purpose is to guide the public so that they can completely do away with the bad manners that tarnish the capital's image and rid themselves of undesirable personal habits," he said.
That was the point of the $120,000 chewing-gum initiative in October, when nearly 1,000 people worked for several days to remove hundreds of thousands of chewing-gum wads from Tiananmen Square.
Now, gum-spitters face a fine of up to $6, and people who buy gum near the square are being issued government-distributed pouches for use after chewing. Shop clerks tell customers, "Please spit the gum into the bag."
That's hardly all. On Oct. 1, the national day that celebrates the 1949 victory of the communist revolution, a broad sanitary regulation took effect.
Want a skewer of roasted pig's liver or "stinky tofu" or squid? They're about 13 cents more expensive these days because they must be inspected by city health officials, who affix a tiny permit to the end of each stick.
Is your English less than perfect? You might run afoul of city tourism authorities, who are targeting what they call "Chinglish" signs like the one near the Temple of Heaven touting tender cuts of "boast beef," or the inexplicable "flexible blast liner" available at a local greasy spoon.
Raising ducks, geese, rabbits or livestock in urban areas? Illegal now.
Throwing dirty water or fruit peels in the street? No more.
Spitting (without gum)? That'll cost you $5 up from 5 cents in the 1980s, though it's still rarely enforced.
Practicing law? Now all lawyers must wear a robe and neckerchief to court.
Every new restaurant must have a toilet. Breakfast carts, a source of both delectable street fare and upset stomachs, are now overseen by health authorities. Barbers and slaughterhouses are being inspected for cleanliness.
Another tradition posting or painting slogans on streets and buildings, for everything from noodle-making lessons to car-repair ads is now punishable by fines, and telephone numbers or e-mail addresses on the ads can be cut off.
While there's been grousing about having so many new rules, those who enforce them say it all makes sense when you're building a new Beijing brimming with glass-and-steel skyscrapers and preparing for the Olympics, a symbol of national pride, as well as healthy living.
"We're China's flagship city. People not only look at us, but look to us," said Jin Dapeng, director of the city's Hygiene Department. "If you're cleaner and healthier, you love life more. And you're going to be more diligent in modernizing China."
A cleaner, more-civilized capital may be within spitting distance.


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