A bald statement of intent
Peng Yanhui always wanted long hair, and the 28-year-old Guangzhou resident, who works for a non-governmental educational organisation, was getting close to his ideal hairstyle. But Peng was to shave his Jackie Chan-style 'do as part of a protest against a 150 million yuan (HK$180 million) lighting project the city is planning for the banks of the Pearl River. The areas near Haixinsha Square, Ersha Island and the Bai E Tan 'bar street' have been earmarked for improved lighting, while a 15 x 400 metre LED screen is to be erected around Bai E Tan's Zhou Tou Zui pier. Peng and others came up with the 'brain is brighter' campaign, which included an online campaign and petition letter, against what he says is a waste of energy and taxpayers' money. It attracted widespread attention in the city - including from government officials.
What do you think of the government's plan?
I was filled with anger when I first came across the announcement of such a wasteful project. The rationale is strange. It is also ridiculous to see that much of the taxpayers' money and electricity was to be wasted on a light screen. This will damage the natural scenery of Bai E Tan where the light panel will be built. This is not a sustainable project.
How did you get started with this campaign?
On a day-to-day basis, there are in fact many unreasonable government projects happening around us but we often feel helpless. Confronted with such a huge light project, I wasn't sure what to do about changing the reality so I started reaching out and discussing the issue with friends who also care a lot about Guangzhou and its future. We concluded that something would need to be done and no matter what that was, there were two purposes we needed to achieve. The first thing is that we need to send out the message that the younger generation will no longer let things pass when coming across another unreasonable public project. They will stand up and do something about it. Another message we need to send out is that public policies should undergo public consultation.
What was the campaign strategy?
I am strongly against the proposal, though I wasn't going to let my voice dominate the campaign. They key is to nurture an atmosphere encouraging the public to have a say whether they are for or against the project. From such a process, everyone can learn how to play a part in shaping public policies.
How did bald heads come about?
After establishing an agenda, I then needed to figure out exactly what to do to achieve my goals. I was stuck for a few days so I went online, inviting people to air their views over the issue. A friend then said 'the brain is brighter' and so it was translated into today's action where we would start shaving our heads, using our bald heads to brighten up Guangzhou.
Did you hesitate?
I did hesitate for a few days, knowing what I was going to do would put myself under the public spotlight. This is not something I'm used to doing. However, one has to do whatever it takes to get your message across, so I began writing letters and putting pictures of my bald head online on April 26th.
Where did you get your head shaved?
I paid 15 yuan at a neighbourhood salon. It was a daunting and yet refreshing experience. In the days after that, people began showing up at that salon to get their heads shaved also. Three days later, we managed to talk the salon boss into joining our campaign as well by shaving his own head while providing free head shavings to participants of this campaign.
How is 'the brain is brighter' idea being received?
Around lunch hour of the second day of the campaign, the original microblog post had been forwarded over 300 times and local reporters began rushing over to cover. By evening, there were over 3,000 forwardings. It went crazy and became the talk of the town. We have many university students from the mainland and Hong Kong and individual professionals and their kids who went along with our campaign. I'm extremely encouraged to see so many supporters recognising our actions. Pictures and stories of people going bald started showing up in local newspapers, television programmes and prestigious editorial commentaries. By the time we recruited 87 people to shave their heads in the first few days, a reporter told me they were banned from reporting on our stories and the microblog account was also deleted.
How did the government respond to your petition?
In the eyes of the government, going bald is radical and rebellious but we felt it was just another relaxed and youthful expression. After being muzzled up, we were pondering how to carry on with the campaign. Meanwhile, three concerned university students met with the city government over the issue around early May. They were told the light panel was necessary as it would establish a symbol of civilisation for Guangzhou. In another e-mail reply from the government, we were told the project was vital to Guangzhou's urbanisation and development and they are looking forward to the public using 'legal' and 'normal' means to air their views over the project.
How did that response make you feel?
I thought that was a very funny reply because clearly the project was all about dressing up Guangzhou's evening view with dazzling lights. Shaving your head is very normal behaviour and certainly legal. I wanted to ask the government, in return, how many normal and legal channels did it offer to its people to say what they think? The existing petition system lacks transparency. No one knows who raised what questions and how those questions were being addressed and followed up.
What is your idea of a beautiful Guangzhou?
A beautiful, developed and civilised Guangzhou is not about having more lights, tall buildings or humongous infrastructure projects. A good city comes from good urban planning where people feel more connected to nature and to each other.
What do you want to achieve in the end?
I want to set up an example or a model, showing people how they could also play a part in shaping public policy. In the meantime, I hope the government could also learn a lesson that continuous suppression of public opinion is not going to do them much good. Instead, engaging in dialogues with people can help eliminate social tension. The campaign was meant to foster positive interaction among the public and the government, but I think it was reinterpreted into something negative.