« | Home | »

China’s Big Society

Tags: | |

The Shao Shui river in Shaoyang, 2010

Between 1999 and 2001 I lived in Shaoyang, a small city in Hunan province known throughout China for being dirty. This wasn’t just the prejudice of outsiders; many of its residents complained about the ‘poor conditions’. Rubbish bobbed on the milky green surface of the Shao Shui river, spread along its banks and choked the dam upstream. The street that led to the college where I taught was lined with food stalls, rubbish heaped around them. During the day people would pick through the piles looking for glass, plastic or metal they could resell; at night the rubbish was set on fire. People wiped their chairs in restaurants before sitting down, or carried newspapers to sit on on the bus, but didn’t think twice about throwing cans and tissues out of car windows.

There were occasional attempts to beautify the streets: food stalls were closed, rubbish bins installed. A visit from a minor official would initiate a frenzy of street sweeping. When I went back to Shaoyang in 2010 there was less rubbish on the streets, but the buildings were as dirty as ever. The river was the same colour; walking by the dam I came upon the burst body of a pig. The biggest difference was the number of private cars on the roads, which had been beyond most people’s means a decade ago.

Last month, retirees were apparently authorised to issue on-the-spot fines for spitting, littering and traffic violations. According to Shaoyang’s Urban Management Bureau, the inspectors, who wear red armbands to identify themselves, are paid 500 yuan a month and are allowed to keep 80 per cent of the fines. There have already been reports of overzealous ticketing, with residents complaining of being ambushed by multiple inspectors when stopped in traffic. There is some disagreement among the municipal authorities as to whether the inspectors are allowed to give out fines (the city’s legal affairs office says not), but the offences for which people are being ticketed are not entirely spurious, such as lacking a motorcycle licence or not wearing a helmet. The head of the Urban Management Bureau defended the policy by saying that the city was ‘trying to improve the urban traffic situation without expending too many of the city’s resources’.

If the scheme continues, it may lead to some small improvements and generate revenue. In 2008 there was a similar, much larger scheme in Zhuzhou (also in Hunan); 18,299 inspectors collected 127,000 yuan in fines in just three months. But getting citizens to police each other won’t deal with the underlying causes of environmental pollution, or encourage the ‘social harmony’ that the government is endlessly invoking.

A rubbish collector in Shaoyang, 2010.

Besides, littering isn’t Shaoyang’s biggest problem. It is an old town that has had little money spent on its upkeep. Like many other small cities in China, it has missed out on the prosperity that followed the economic reforms of the 1980s (which has been mostly confined to the east coast) and has received far less investment, both domestic and foreign. The private sector hasn’t grown enough to make up for the closure of many state-subsidised industries. The Urban Management Bureau’s decision to employ ‘retirees’ (many of whom are laid-off workers rather than pensioners) may also be an attempt to reduce discontent among the jobless. Unemployment is high in Shaoyang: recent figures suggest that eight out of nine adults of working age are without jobs. Last week an ‘early retiree’ from a water company in Shaoyang killed three managers in an arson attack, possibly because they did not hire one of her children. When the 12th National People’s Congress convenes in October, one of the greatest challenges that faces the new leaders will be finding a way to close the gap between cities like Shaoyang and those on the coast.

Comment on this post

Log in or register to post a comment.

  • Recent Posts

    RSS – posts

  • Contributors

  • Recent Comments

    • mideastzebra on Swedish-Israeli Tensions: Avigdor Liberman was not foreign minister November 2015.
    • lars hakanson on Exit Cameron: Europe will for good reason rejoice when the UK elects to leave. The country has over the years provided nothing but obstacles to European integration...
    • Michael Schuller on Immigration Scandals: The Home Office is keen to be seen to be acting tough on immigration, although I'm not sure that the wider project has anything to do with real number...
    • Geoff Roberts on What happened in Cologne?: The most surprising thing about the events in Cologne (and the most disturbing) is that some 600 incidents of theft, harrasment and rape were reported...
    • EmilyEmily on What happened in Cologne?: The author's argument is straightforward: Sexual violence is one beast; fears about migrants is another - let's not confuse the two. Alfalfa's poin...

    RSS – comments

  • Contact

  • Blog Archive

  • From the LRB Archive

    Chris Lehmann: The Candidates
    18 June 2015

    ‘Every one of the Republican candidates can be described as a full-blown adult failure. These are people who, in most cases, have been granted virtually every imaginable advantage on the road to success, and managed nevertheless to foul things up along the way.’

    Hugh Pennington:
    The Problem with Biodiversity
    10 May 2007

    ‘As a medical microbiologist, for example, I have spent my career fighting biodiversity: my ultimate aim has been to cause the extinction of harmful microbes, an objective shared by veterinary and plant pathologists. But despite more than a hundred years of concentrated effort, supported by solid science, smallpox has been the only success.’

    Jeremy Harding: At the Mexican Border
    20 October 2011

    ‘The battle against illegal migration is a domestic version of America’s interventions overseas, with many of the same trappings: big manpower commitments, militarisation, pursuit, detection, rendition, loss of life. The Mexican border was already the focus of attention before 9/11; it is now a fixation that shows no signs of abating.’

    James Meek: When the Floods Came
    31 July 2008

    ‘Last July, a few days after the floods arrived, with 350,000 people still cut off from the first necessity of life, Severn Trent held its annual general meeting. It announced profits of £325 million, and confirmed a dividend for shareholders of £143 million. Not long afterwards the company, with the consent of the water regulator Ofwat, announced that it wouldn’t be compensating customers: all would be charged as if they had had running water, even when they hadn’t.’

Advertisement Advertisement