Chapter 5: Building Civilised Cities
This chapter introduces the urban issue of the year — the air quality problem in China’s cities — in relation to the ‘Civilised City’ system. The system combines Maoist-style campaigns with ideals of urban modernisation, bestowing the honour of the title ‘Civilised City’ on chosen places of reform. A hybrid form of social control and urban governance, the National Civilised City program sets out goals that encompass government accountability, air quality monitoring and improved public infrastructure including cultural facilities, in addition to programs promoting volunteerism and ‘healthy’ ideals for urban youth. It is a broad-based approach for all cities that recalibrates the party-state’s political and social agendas in relation to standard urban development benchmarks.
An Uncivilised Air
In 2012–2013, many cities in the People’s Republic of China started regularly reporting air quality data for PM2.5 — the measurement for micro-particulate airborne pollutants that are implicated in a range of serious health threats. PM2.5 in the air sometimes appears like a ground fog or mist, and photographs of urban streets thick with smog in China often look like fog-bound river valleys or coasts. Rather than being identified by weather forecasters as unsightly and threatening ‘air pollution’ (kongqi wuran 空气污染), in recent years the authorities have encouraged the use of the more poetic expression ‘dun mists’ (yinmai 阴霾). California tule fog — the winter fog of the San Joaquin Valley — can look worse than average Beijing smog.
In January 2013, the reading for PM2.5 in Beijing air reached its highest recorded levels since the US Embassy there began independently tracking pollution levels in 2008. Readings were over 750 on the 1–500 scale of the US Environmental Protection Agency air quality index, and up to 900 at some stations. When the reading first broached 500, the US Embassy twitter feed indicated ‘crazy bad’, a non-official description that was not originally meant for public dissemination because no-one imagined that the level of PM2.5 would ever exceed 500. Nevertheless, the phrase went viral.
The relation between the appearance of the air and health-threatening levels of PM2.5 lies in the numbers. As we noted in Yearbook 2012, the US Embassy’s webpage and twitter feed ‘BeijingAir’ introduced the concept of PM2.5 to Chinese citizens in 2009. The authorities protested against this statistical incursion into local air sovereignty. In a tone of high dudgeon, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs urged that ‘air quality data should not follow a “market-based” approach’. It was concerned because PM2.5 information released by the embassy had ‘resulted in the Chinese public now questioning “unnecessarily” the validity of Beijing EPB’s [Environmental Protection Bureau’s] data.’ The ministry declared that the ‘Beijing EPB should be the sole authoritative voice for making pronouncements on Beijing’s air quality’. By this logic, the ministry was unwilling to support a market in objective data.
The hazardous air led people to coin the expression ‘airpocalypse’ (kongqi mori 空气末日) that captured the public sense of panic. People blogged about ‘refusing to be human vacuum cleaners’ (jujue zuo renrou xichenqi 拒绝做人肉吸塵器) and recorded their experiences: ‘I’m standing in front of Tiananmen but can’t see [the huge portrait on Tiananmen Gate of] Chairman Mao’ (zhan zai Tiananmen qian, que kanbujian Mao zhuxi 站在天安门前, 却看不见毛主席). Reports that the smog was also registering indoors, inside public buildings, were alarming and sometimes appeared in contradictory terms that defied reality: ‘The interior of the gleaming Terminal 3 of the Beijing Capital International Airport was filled with a thick haze on Thursday’. In another account, anxious hotel guests ran for a fire alarm after encountering smoke in the hallway, only to learn that it was osmotic smog. The security authorities, having painstakingly installed unprecedented numbers of surveillance cameras in public spaces such as Wangfujing Mall and Tiananmen Square, as well as around party-state government compounds in recent years, were also worried to find themselves blinded by the persistent thick haze.
Once the authorities started reporting PM2.5 levels, local governments expanded their air quality monitoring capacity. In January 2013, for example, Shanghai introduced a user-friendly air quality index in the form of an anime-style face whose six different expressions correspond to air quality levels. More importantly, the Shanghai Environmental Protection Bureau now provides real-time air quality data for a range of air quality indicators: PM2.5, O3, CO, PM10, SO2 and NO2, based on an aggregate of information from ten measuring stations.
China’s Environmental Protection Bureau has historically preferred reporting on the larger particulate measurement of PM10, which is equal to ten microns, or ten millionths of a metre. PM2.5 is only 2.5 microns. (For the non-metric world, PM2.5 comes down to 1/10,000 of an inch.) To gain some idea of the size of such particles, we would note that the dot above the letter ‘i’ in a typical newspaper measures about 400 microns. Micro-particles collect in vital organs and can also enter the body through the surface of the skin. Since the nineteenth century, people in industrialised cities have suffered unknowingly from some amount of exposure to micro-pollutants. Scientific knowledge of the health consequences of PM2.5 has circulated only since the early 2000s. The fact that China is industrialising at a time when pollution is a global concern means that its citizens and foreign residents, as well as the media and potential visitors, expect that the authorities will strive to meet international standards. In response to the news about poor air quality, foreign tourist arrivals decreased markedly in 2013.
In 2012, the central Ministry of Environmental Protection outlined new requirements for cities to monitor and report on ambient air quality standards. This policy is now being introduced incrementally in the leading cities of major industrial regions such as Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai and Guangzhou, as well as in provincial capitals. The authorities further stipulated that, in 2013, all of what are called ‘Key Environmental Protection Cities’ and ‘National Environmental Protection Model Cities’ had to monitor air quality. This will be followed in 2015 by the same requirements for all prefecture-level cities (most large cities except Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin and Chongqing are prefecture-level) and other cities nationwide by 2016.
Because rapid industrialisation and rapid urbanisation have proceeded hand in hand, China takes a multi-faceted approach to questions related to modernisation and development. Still, many forms of urban policy are neither readily visible to observers nor directly comparable to the kind of approaches taken in other countries. For example, in China today there are different types of what are called ‘model cities’ (mofan chengshi 模范城市). The political history of the ‘model’ (mofan 模范 or dianxing 典型) in China derives from the Maoist-era use of model production workers, model streets and model places, which the propaganda apparatus held up for emulation. The most famous model places in the Maoist heyday were the oilfields of Daqing (Daqing youtian 大庆油田) and Dazhai People’s Commune (Dazhai renmin gongshe 大寨人民公社). The media repetitively idealised their trumped-up successes in collective production and support for the party-state: as sites for political pilgrimage they were outstanding symbols of Potemkin-village propaganda. They were also geographical contexts for the Stakhanovite labour mobilisation model, introduced to China from the Soviet Union in the 1940s. Alexey Stakhanov was the mythologised model worker who symbolised a zealous socialist work ethic and ‘socialist competition’. Villages, factories or industrial towns thus competed to increase their production through collective effort. If they reported that they had exceeded their quotas, they could accrue rewards; they commonly masked their failures and faked their successes through inflated statistics. This had disastrous implications for overall economic management.
The model city programs in China today have their historical and aesthetic roots in such Maoist-era models and the political campaigns used to promote them. For example, big red banners with political statements and exhortations still herald ‘model’ activities. Yet now, instead of basing a model on a particular place, such as was the case when the whole nation was exhorted to ‘In Industry Learn from Daqing’ (gongye xue Daqing 工业学大庆), the contemporary approach combines measures for social control with regulations for urban governance. What has not changed is that today’s model city guidelines provide idealised visions of development, officially approved standards for urban modernisation. An early contemporary example of such a campaign was the National Environmental Protection Model Cities program launched in 1997. Others include the National Ecological Garden City, National Hygienic City, National Model City for Science and Technology, National Excellent City for Comprehensive Management of Public Security and National Entrepreneurial City. But unlike schemes targeting one particular goal, the National Civilised City model involves a set of goals, criteria and indices of measurement designed to regularise urban governance and promote its standards nationwide.
Slogans and Quality
The National Civilised City (Quanguo wenming chengshi 全国文明城市) campaign is a top-down, commercialised form of post-socialist mobilisation or agitprop. It features, among other things, propaganda slogans in large colourful Chinese characters printed on all kinds of conspicuous billboards and other kinds of signs. This kind of Mao-era ‘red’ practice might seem out of step with the contemporary urban environment, but it is a central, and highly visible, feature of party-led socialist modernisation. The language used in these slogans harks back to the Spiritual Civilisation campaigns of the 1980s mentioned earlier in this volume. Today, following the prompts of the new leadership of Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, ‘The China Dream’ prominently features in many of these urban slogans; under the previous decade-long rule of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, the key phrase was to create a ‘Harmonious Society’ (hexie shehui 和谐社会).
At the core of all of these exhortations is the tireless injunction to ‘construct a civilised society, build a civilised city’. The language often includes paired characters or phrases relating the actions of the individual to the quality of the society or collective. Many of the slogans repeat the term ‘civilised’ (wenming 文明) the key expression of this Yearbook — several times over with different yet related meanings. Other slogans draw explicit connections between the behaviour of the individual and urban development. Numerous variations exist, tailored to particular cities. All of the keywords used in the slogans invoke ideas about the role of the individual in striving to build modern cities. Together they convey the notion that the future of China lies in the city as a paragon of national modernisation and development.
For these reasons, talk of wenming in China invariably invokes another idea, that of suzhi. As we noted in the introduction to this Yearbook, it is a term that can roughly be translated as the ‘quality’, demeanour or overall value of a person or people.
At the start of the Reform era in 1979 and the launching of policies leading to radical modernisation, China’s leaders expressed concern about the quality of its population (renkou suzhi 人口素质), fearing that low levels of education, widespread lawless behaviour, and people’s lack of ability to cope with rapid change would limit China’s potential to catch up with other countries. The concern with suzhi, which dates back to the early twentieth century, is integral to the party-state’s efforts to create the kind of civilised society it envisages for China and to achieve the goals of Socialist Spiritual Civilisation. For the authorities, this is the human development side of economic growth in national modernisation. The building of civilised cities today is the latest in a series of political campaigns to improve the suzhi of the country’s citizens as a whole.
Guiding Spiritual Civilisation
Again, as mentioned elsewhere, in 1986 the Party passed a ‘Resolution on Guiding Principles for Building a Socialist Society with Spiritual Civilisation’. In 1997, it established a Central Guidance Commission for Building Spiritual Civilisation under the supervision of the Party’s Propaganda Department. In 2003, the Spiritual Civilisation Commission set standards and selection procedures for National Civilised Cities at all levels of government administration. There were to be: ‘national civilised cities and districts’; ‘civilised villages and towns’; and ‘civilised [work] units’. In 2005, it promulgated a National Civilised City Assessment System (Quanguo wenming chengshi ceping tixi 全国文明城市测评体系) in the form of government manuals for each administrative level, each of the three levels of city (shi 市) as well as urban districts (shiqu 市区). New, updated editions of the manual appeared in 2008 and 2011.
Evaluation of the implementation of these policies is the work of the City Investigation Team of the National Bureau of Statistics (Guojia tongjiju chengshi diaocha dui 国家统计局城市调查队). Team members sign non-disclosure agreements and are assigned to cities where they demonstrably have no conflicts of interest. Their task is to evaluate the goals and achievements of urban civilisation policies. Evaluators learn of their assignments when, en route to the airport, they open a confidential envelope specifying their destination and field sites. Like restaurant critics, they carry out their work incognito, posing as ordinary tourists; they stay in three-star hotels and travel by taxi to observe conditions in major commercial streets and at traffic junctions, in hospitals and markets, as well as some fifty randomly selected sites. They try public telephones, and ride public buses to tabulate how many people do, and do not, give up their seats for the elderly, pregnant women, the disabled and children. All visits are unannounced, including neighbourhood visits during which they interview residents about their participation rates in local activities.
City governments voluntarily apply to be assessed for evaluation. To qualify, jurisdictions must attain the status of being designated an ‘Advanced Civilised City’ (xianjin wenming chengshi 先进文明城市), based on a set of statistical indicators, in order to prepare for site evaluation. Local Spiritual Civilisation Offices in cities co-ordinate with other branches of government to plan and implement activities that will meet their goals in some nine categories, based on over 100 indicators. In 2005, the Spiritual Civilisation Commission recognised ten cities as National Civilised Cities. They were: Xiamen, Qingdao, Dalian, Ningbo, Shenzhen, Baotou, Zhongshan, Yantai, Langfang and Zhangjiagang. Three urban districts made the cut: Tianjin’s Heping district, Shanghai’s Pudong New Area and Beijing’s Xicheng district. Such formal recognition means that the named city or district can hold the title while continuing to ‘civilise’ itself over the following three- to four-year period, when they will be re-evaluated.
The introduction to the 2011 manual covering the National Civilised City Assessment System includes the numerous criteria necessary to apply to become a ‘Civilised City’; in particular, it emphasises ‘ideological and moral construction work’ for adolescents. Other prerequisites require clean and disaster-free government. For instance, in the twelve months preceding an application or the review of a positive evaluation as ‘civilised’, any rule violation or crime committed by a jurisdiction’s party secretary or mayor rules out the application or nullifies the place’s ‘civilised’ status. Any serious accident or incident within the jurisdiction, such as water pollution, food safety incident or major construction disaster also prevents a city from applying for the status, or may lead to a city being stripped of the honorific title.
Among the cities named as being ‘civilised’ in 2005, six have retained their status through the 2009 and 2011 evaluations: Xiamen, Dalian, Ningbo, Baotou, Yantai and Zhangjiagang. Because the program treats provincial-level cities as provinces, urban districts (rather than the city at large), may apply for civilised status. Xicheng district, Beijing and Heping district, Tianjin, retained their ‘civilised’ status over three rounds. In 2009, meanwhile, the Commission recognised eleven new cities and three new urban districts. Of the cities and districts named in 2005, all except Qingdao and Shanghai’s Pudong retained their titles. In 2011, the Commission recognised a record twenty-four cities and three districts. Among existing title-holders, all remained ‘civilised’ except Shenzhen, Zhongshan and Shanghai’s Jing’an district, only recognised in 2009. In 2011, Qingdao and Shanghai Pudong regained National Civilised City status. Currently, there are a total of fifty national civilised cities; sixteen sub-provincial, twenty-two at the prefectural level, four at the county level and eight urban districts.
Making the Grade
The current evaluation manual emphasises some categories more than others. Categories four, five and six, which together cover social and cultural resources, management and services, are the most clearly articulated. Among them, category four, ‘healthy human environment’, has the most criteria. Not surprisingly, these include evidence of such ‘civilised behaviours’ as no spitting, littering and so forth. There’s a Lei Feng-style section on moral conduct and sections on volunteerism, which reflect historical practices and values from the Maoist era. More than 90 percent of the citizens of the aspiring Civilised City must be aware of volunteer service organisations, and at least eight percent must undertake volunteer work. This category also includes international-style urban development criteria for cultural affairs and the development of cultural industries. Cities must make an economic commitment to cultural services for which the evaluation standard is evidence of local government spending on the cultural sector at a rate in keeping with its general revenue growth. The jurisdiction must provide regular, free activity programs at public libraries and sports facilities and free entry to museums and cultural and exhibition centres.
The Party’s primary concern in the evaluation process is improvement of the conduct of government and party officials. Category one gives priority to ‘continuing education for officials’, including the study of party documents as well as earning the ‘people’s satisfaction’ via significant measures to improve local social problems. To popularise the program and his role in its promotion, in 2009 the mayor of Shenzhen, Xu Zongheng, launched a ‘one-hundred mayors network for the creation of civilised cities’. However, Shenzhen lost its own title when Xu was placed under investigation for serious violations of party discipline and subsequently dismissed for corruption. Shenzhen has since been working hard to regain its lost ‘civilised’ status. In March 2013, it became the first city to implement a ‘civility law’, which imposes fines for ‘uncivilised’ public behaviour.
Making the Civilised City title contingent on a corruption-free officialdom symbolically links in new ways the behaviour of officials to the city’s national standing. In an awarded Civilised City, this link also potentially intensifies public opprobrium of corrupt officials. The seaside Shandong provincial city of Qingdao lost its title in 2009 due to one of the outstanding scandals of the 2000s — the corruption of Du Shicheng, party secretary of the city from 2002, who took millions in bribes and awarded his mistress, Li Wei, large contracts for Olympics-related projects when the city was preparing to host the sailing competition of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Du was removed in 2007 and sentenced to life in prison in February 2008. The Pudong district of Shanghai also lost its title as a consequence of corrupt land and real estate dealings. The Vice-Mayor of Pudong from 2004–2007, Kang Huijun, had earned the nickname ‘the new landlord of Pudong’ and ‘director of real estate speculation’ because he benefitted from control over the access to real estate in Liujiazui and Jinqiao — the two major development zones in Pudong. He also managed to acquire multiple apartments at below-market prices. He was sentenced to life in prison in 2009.
Category eight in the civilising process requires an ‘ecologically sustainable environment’. This includes the management of air quality based on national standards. The rapidity with which cities have installed air quality monitors since the official recognition of PM2.5 mentioned above, and placed data online, led in 2013 to the creation of a major new website (www.aqicn.org) that collates data from cities across the country. The website features individual maps depicting the locations of air quality monitors in each city and a national map showing simultaneous Air Quality Index readings in dozens of cities.
A National Public Civilisation Index (Quanguo wenming zhishu ceping 全国文明指数测评) assesses on an annual basis the progress made by aspiring cities. By the end of 2012, the National Bureau of Statistics revealed that Xiamen in the southern coastal province of Fujian ranked first overall for the second year in a row and, in the area of the ‘moral education of teenagers’, second only to Qingdao, Shandong province. Xiamen’s distinctions also included boasting a 9.6 percent volunteer rate, with increasing numbers of volunteers at airports, bus stations, hospitals and tourist spots. To address public concerns related to food safety, the city government implemented an online supervision system tracking fresh and pre-packaged foods in supermarkets from more than 10,000 companies: when a substandard product is found its producer is publicly identified. Xiamen also hosts blogs for ‘civilised adolescents’ involving more than 380 primary and secondary schools and about 50,000 student bloggers.
The Idea of Rank
Most countries define cities by population size. China primarily defines cities by their administrative rank, from provincial-level city (zhixia shi 直辖市) to prefecture-level city (diji shi 地级市) and county-level city (xianji shi 县级市). Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai and Chongqing are defined as municipalities that are under the direct control or jurisdiction of the central government on the same level as a province. A city’s place in this system determines its ‘rank’ (jibie 级别) in the hierarchy.
The significance of rank is apparent in the documents of the Civilised City program. Reports on the National Civilised City program make no reference to a city’s particular history, specific culture, or to distinctive places within a city including World Heritage sites. The standardised outcomes of the National Civilised City program present only the name of a city listed in order of administrative rank, from prefecture-level cities and districts of provincial-level cities to ‘civilised town’ and ‘civilised units’. Documents do not report why a city has attained Civilised City status, or why it has lost it. If a city loses its title, its name simply disappears from the list.
In Chinese, the multiple meanings of the word pin 品 help explain some of the deeper meanings of the ideas around ‘rank’. Among the slogans appearing in Shenzhen’s civilising landscape was ‘Construct a High-grade Cultural Shenzhen City’ (ba Shenzhen jiancheng gao pinwei wenhua chengshi 把深圳建成高品位文化城市). Here the pin in pinwei or ‘grade’ covers notions of rank, measurement and status. Yet pin has additional meanings. Pin is composed of three kou 口 or mouths. It implies not merely to ‘taste or sample’ (pinchang 品尝) whether a food is salty or sweet or of high quality as in ‘taste (appreciate) fine tea’ (pin ming 品茗), but also taste in the cultured or ‘civilised’ sense of the ability to discern quality.
As a single character it can be a noun indicating, for example, a high rank in the dynastic court: it appeared in this sense as early as the Tang dynasty (618–907) and the last dynasty, the Qing (1644–1911), had nine pin or ‘ranks’ of bureaucrats. It could also mean temperament or character, or small commodities or products. As a verb it may mean to sample, appraise, rate or judge. Paired with other characters it can form compounds such as pinde 品德 and pinge 品格, both conveying the sense of moral character; pinxing 品行, conduct or behaviour; pinwei 品味, taste or sensibility; pinping 品评, to judge, adjudicate or comment on; pinzhong 品种, variety or breed; pinzhi 品质, quality; pinwei 品位, grade or rank and pinpai 品牌, brand. From ancient times to the present, this one character connects these diverse ideas about rank and assessment with notions of inherent quality.
Pin 品 parses and elevates what is distinctive within categories. With uneven social development in China, the concept of pin informs party-state concerns about the potential to transform the suzhi of the population. Yet the notion of striving for ‘scientific’ improvement in the suzhi of individuals holds less significance today than the historical mission of civilising the collective. In the Reform era, the city is the key collective and holds highest rank among places, and so the National Civilised City ranks first in the official honours for ‘civilised’ places.
Standardising Urban Governance
Both netizens and officials have been critical of China’s Civilised City program. They point out that vibrant urban life with a basis in cultural diversity is different from the tireless, standardised check-list of Civilised City criteria as identified by the party-state. Even the style in which a civilising campaign (chuangzao wenming chengshi 创造文明城市, chuangwen 创文 for short) is launched — floral displays and colourful potted plants lining the roadsides, red banners flying overhead, streets suddenly swept clear of vendors and buzzing with red-jacketed volunteers — recalls the aesthetic style of mid-twentieth century communism and mass mobilisation campaigns. It seems out of step with China’s new, high-rise, consumer-oriented urban environments.
The Civilised City program also appears, at least superficially, to be at odds with China’s development of modern ranking systems and the Party’s emphasis on becoming ‘world class’ in all areas, from productive capacities to the knowledge economy and cities themselves. But the red legacies of socialism remain strong in China, and have been rearticulated since the rise of Xi Jinping in late 2012. The Civilised City system links enduring values of the party-state with contemporary principles of urban development under global capitalism. The shift to extreme marketisation or neoliberalism in the world economy since the 1980s encourages ranking schemes and quantitative indicators as a way of attracting economic interests. The neoliberal world economy readily accommodates the politics of rank in China — where the market and the state combine in inventive ways that powerfully endorse numbers and urban rankings.
On one level, China’s National Civilised City program strives to improve the roles and functions of modern urban government. It promotes the co-ordination of government services, social needs, economic development, environmental quality and culture as conceived by the state. It has grown well beyond the system of political-linguistic techniques that have existed throughout the sixty-four year history of the People’s Republic for socialising and coercing citizen conduct. It promotes replicable standards and the involvement of both citizens and officials in developing more open and transparent forms of government behaviour and citizen compliance.
On another level, the program’s emphasis on volunteerism or citizen participation in forms of social support and societal monitoring links it to the Maoist era tradition of ‘mobilising the grassroots’ — the masses — to carry out unpaid social and productive work. It maintains and expands citizen involvement in the policing of public places. Its ideological impact is especially evident in government programs to socialise teenagers and young people by training them to use state-approved online services and blogs in accordance with official guidelines. In these ways, the party-state continues its attempts to control social behaviour and create a future nation of uniformly ‘civilised’, ideologically homogenous and modern places — a Chinese version of the ‘world class’ city.