Seven years to stamp out spitting: the 'Woodpeckers' swooping on Beijing's bad habits

Seven-year crusade to stamp out spitting and other poor behaviour is paying dividends

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 June, 2014, 4:56am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 June, 2014, 10:20am

Wang Tao, president of the non-profit Green Woodpecker Association, has been on a mission for the past seven years - convincing people to behave in a more civil way in public. Each week, Wang and other volunteers go out on the streets to persuade their fellow Beijingers against such antisocial behaviour as spitting, ignoring red lights or even walking around shirtless. Years of experience have convinced Wang that people can modify their behaviour in public.

How do you convince people not to spit in public?

We started our "green woodpecker action" in 2006. When we see people spit, we hand them a tissue for them to clean up. The campaign was carried out at Beijing West Railway Station at weekends. I think it has been effective in a way because we don't advertise in mass media or chant slogans to grab attention.

We rely solely on people who have been stopped and ask them to relay our message that the city's hygiene needs to be maintained. I think it works well, and whoever is stopped learns a valuable lesson.

After years of effort, do you see any improvement?

Progress has been impressive. Before 2008, between 60 and 80 per cent of people listened to us, but now almost all of them agree with what we say. People are definitely more civic-minded.

In the early days, I was often told, "Mind your own business," and occasionally there were physical confrontations, but now there is none of that. Before 2008 I could easily give away 20 packs of tissues on my way to and from work and now I barely hand out two packs.

The traffic and flow of people is huge around the West Railway Station, and many of the people there are from remote rural areas, but we still see obvious change. It is no exaggeration that spitting used to be commonplace at the station before 2008, but now it is much less. We also clear up litter, which has a positive effect. I think that when people are in a clean environment, they will behave better to keep it clean.

Have you any bad experiences with the public?

Two occasions were very unpleasant. Once a young man got very angry and threw a water bottle at me. It went right by my ear. The other time a young man got on a bus after he had been spitting, so I followed him to talk to him about it. He got very angry and held me by the collar and there was almost a fight.

Elderly Beijing men in public parks are difficult to persuade. Some are arrogant and tell us to mind our own business, and even want to fight. In that case we walk away. But those angry men are only trying to save face.

What other projects are you working on?

There are several projects under way. Our "green light action" is to get people to obey traffic lights when crossing the road. When our volunteers are around they normally behave well, but once nobody is stopping them they start crossing at will and it really is a danger - not just for pedestrians, but drivers too.

Some universities and high schools, such as the Central University of Finance and Economics and Beijing No4 Middle School, participate in the programme. They come to the railway station to volunteer and try to do the same thing at crossings near their school. It's our goal that every school or company takes care of their nearby road crossings.

What about in other parts of the city?

We also go to busy areas of the city, such as Tiananmen Square, Wangfujing and Xidan (a popular shopping area) to stop uncivilised behaviour, such as men walking about shirtless. Many foreigners like to hang out at the Simatai section of the Great Wall and take their shirts off. We talk them out of it and give them a T-shirt to wear in return.

Tell me more about the 'blue sky moment'

This is where we present lectures in neighbourhoods to inform residents about kitchen waste disposal and recycling waste, such as plastic and glass. We have an exchange programme to collect plastic and glass that residents can't sell to garbage collectors and dispose of recklessly. We ask residents to give us this waste in exchange for household necessities such as detergent or soap. There are 10 such exchange booths in Beijing.

I have been approached by some big commercial buildings to help their tenants dispose of unwanted electronics in an environmentally responsible way. We find nationally certified companies to help dispose these products rather than just throw them away.

How do you feel about the way garbage is disposed of in Beijing?

I am not very optimistic about kitchen waste disposal because residents have very poor knowledge about how to separate their waste. They put everything together. Now we have specific bins for plastics, cans, paper and so on, but residents complain that the waste just gets taken away mixed together and so separating rubbish at home is a waste of time.

The government complains that they can't take separate waste away if residents don't sort it first. The finger-pointing never ends. I am trying to let residents appreciate the consequences of allowing garbage to pile up around cities and the importance of separating kitchen waste for better disposal.

Is this your full-time job?

I have a busy full-time job in a semi-government agency and devote all my spare time to this organisation.

How does your family feel about your devotion to these projects?

My family were not very supportive at first, but they let me do what I wanted to do. My four-year-old son helps me collect cigarette butts at the West Railway Station. He is very conscious of how to protect the environment.