July is the official start of campaign season in the U.S., with both major parties selecting their nominee for the highest office in the land. Across the Pacific, Shanghai’s been holding a little campaign of its own. This one isn’t fraught with plagiarized speeches or missing e-mails. No. This campaign is all about ethics and how to create a society based on the rule of law.
Late last year, parks and local communities throughout Shanghai began to display posters with Chinese characters representing ethical virtues like patriotism, diligence, friendship and courtesy. Television advertisements took the message to mass media. Not long after, signs and banners warned against the perils of drunk driving using a bloodied cartoon tire, the importance of pedestrians following traffic laws (to say that jay walking is rife in China would be an understatement), ordering only as much food as you can eat (see above, but insert food waste), and the joys of exercise.
Don’t get me wrong. These campaigns are all extremely important and timely. In many ways, they reflect the larger national campaigns on curbing unethical behavior among government officials and Chinese tourists travelling overseas.
What started as colorful posters espousing ethical tenets, however, has blossomed into a crackdown on everything from fake DVDs to gelato shops to grannies cycling to the vegetable market. The campaigns for hearts and minds are now battles changing the very image of Shanghai. I started noticing this while taking my dog on his daily walk around Shanghai’s Culture Square, a musical theater complex once used as a greyhound racing track (and, more recently, inquisition grounds during the Cultural Revolution). One by one, the mom-and-pop shops were being bricked up. First, it was my go-to florist. Then, my favorite dim sum joint. Only last week, the city’s best gelato shop shuttered as well.
Shanghailanders have come to find out that this is part of a citywide campaign to preserve the integrity of heritage architecture. In reality, this is a crackdown on illegally zoned businesses. For the shops along my block, their proximity to a university means they are meant for academic and not business use. Impending closures of the bars and restaurants along Shanghai’s now infamous Yongkang Road come down to a lack of alcohol licensing. The list is expanding day by day. To the surprise of most, many of the city’s longest-running and dearest institutions have fallen prey to the axe of these campaigns. Closing places like Han City (aka the Fake Market) were no-brainers. Other closures, such as the much-beloved Dongtai Antique Market, left people scratching their heads.
It seems that, for what is likely the first time ever, ethics in China is beating out economics.
The latest part of this multifaceted ethics campaign impacts those on two wheels. In late March, armies of blue shirted traffic police started to pop up in major intersections throughout the city. Armed with a pen and notepad, they began passing out $3 traffic tickets like candy to motorbikes and bicycles that broke the law. Often, this was due to riding the wrong way down a street, not having a license, or carrying passengers. For anyone that’s tried to cross a Shanghai street, you’ll know the dangers posed by the flagrant disregard of traffic rules. This enforcement of the law was lampooned originally as a temporary campaign that would end in a few weeks. Now, four months on, the work of the men in blue (yes, in China it’s still all men, but that’s another topic for another day) is still going strong. People are seeing a difference too. According to Shanghai’s Statistics Bureau, 39% of residents in the city center note they have seen a significant improvement in traffic conditions since the start of the campaign. This number jumps to 50% among those in the more suburban areas of Shanghai.
Not everyone is happy with the situation, though. Just this morning I spent 30 minutes on a corner watching the police stop cyclists to hand out tickets. During that brief time, I saw no less than 5 heated arguments with the police, a dozen cyclists speed up and pass the officer trying to give a ticket, and numerous others simply walk their bikes past the cops and get back on going the wrong way down a one-way street.
From this I realize that it’s going to take a lot more than a few posters and police to make a lasting impact. When I think of how the New Cultural Revolution is playing out, it’s not only bottom up with the vanguard of the movement. Having top-down, government-led policy is also critical to the Revolution’s potential success. The key factor in all of these ethics campaigns is going to be their staying power. Changing hearts, minds, and behavior isn’t something done overnight. To accomplish the end goal of a China based on the rule of law, everyone is going to need a little diligence, friendship and courtesy.