Civilisation means more than just a charming image
On my way to work a few weeks ago I was startled by the scene in one Guangzhou neighbourhood. An unannounced facelift left me wondering for a few minutes whether I had walked onto the set of a television show.
The streets were spotless, the shrubbery well maintained, no foul odours were emanating from rubbish bins and there were actually policemen on patrol. Clusters of hawkers selling barbecued meat at wet market entrances had been removed, along with handicapped street singers and vendors of pirated DVDs.
It was all part of a recently ended city-wide campaign to 'create civilisation' and led to the fabrication of an ideal neighbourhood - for a few, short hours. The illusion was shattered on my return home that evening when all the familiar ills were restored.
The campaign to 'create civilisation' was part of Guangzhou's drive to be recognised as a civilised city - a sought-after title on the mainland.
Inspectors from the national propaganda and civilisation offices judge whether an applicant city is qualified for the title according to a complicated set of benchmarks. According to the central government, a modern, civilised city is one that is relatively affluent and where economic, political, cultural, social and intellectual development has achieved remarkable progress.
Among other things, cities are judged on their image, intellectual capital, government effectiveness and integrity, the fairness of the legal environment, market place regulation, environmental health and sustainable development. The grading is carried out through surveys and inspections.
After hosting the Asian Games in November, Guangzhou was desperate to be recognised as a civilised city - something it had been working towards since 1998 - and it invested a lot of money and manpower in the campaign to 'create civilization'.
Most of what happened in the past 10 months in Guangzhou revolved around an extensive, co-ordinated propaganda campaign, with media reports about people not jumping queues, littering or spitting and of people giving up their seats to the elderly on public transport.
Local media boasted there was an average of 18,000 volunteers working to keep more than 60 neighbourhoods free of traffic congestion last month. The public was called on to submit propaganda slogans for the campaign and more closed-circuit video surveillance cameras were installed. There were also countless reports hailing improvement in people's livelihoods over the years.
The reports tried to paint a rosy picture of a civilised Guangzhou - linked to provincial party secretary Wang Yang's 'Happy Guangdong' campaign - but the reality is another story.
Recently, we witnessed the cold-blooded treatment of a two-year-girl in neighbouring Foshan. She was run over by a minivan and then a truck and left lying in a pool of blood on the road. Eighteen people walked passed her in the first seven minutes and no one offered to help. She died in hospital early yesterday.
This Wednesday, Guangzhou television reporter Lu Yaoyao was badly assaulted by two men while working on a story about an illegal car park in Xinhepu, in Guangzhou's central Yuexiu district. The car park was very close to the provincial government office and the quarters of senior officials.
Those who drive in Guangzhou are familiar with the lack of courtesy on its roads. People switch lanes without indicating and cars often park illegally. There is no such thing as queueing for a taxi as locals race to steal cabs from each other.
When stepping out of elevators or subway trains, you will always be confronted by a wall of humanity - often forcing you back into the compartment for a few more stations. Elderly passengers are still left standing on public transport, while young men sitting down nearby doze off.
After more than a year of promoting rubbish sorting, plastic bags still fill recycling bins and people puff away in restaurants and train stations despite a smoking ban.
It is not yet known whether Guangzhou will finally win the coveted civilised city title, but based on the evidence available it appears to have lost the battle.
The daily grievances of the people - including the unfair legal system, unaffordable medical services, restrictions on free speech, constantly congested traffic and wide-ranging discrimination - show the city still has a long way to go.
Clearly, good policies and persistent effort are the proper ways to improve urban management.
It is not about encouraging people to submit red slogans, electing civilisation ambassadors in schools or brightening up the Pearl River's banks with excessive illumination.
Civilisation cannot be created hastily by simply sweeping eyesores under the rug and running positive reports in the hope problems and grievances will just vanish overnight.
After all, this is a real city - not a set built for a TV show.