I had an interesting encounter on the phone yesterday. A local magazine called to interview me about my thoughts on Kunming's latest push to "civilize" its citizens. Seriously. The city plans to engage almost all of its residents in civilization training courses, and has recently released what it calls the "civilization compact", which is actually a list of behaviors, such as spitting, pushing and cursing, that will now bring fines.
The party has been putting this word to some interesting uses recently. Walking around town, you see it everywhere, from billboards exhorting passersby to "construct civilization", to plaques asserting that such and such company is a "civilized work unit". There is a sign on a street corner that labels it a "civilization index observation point". But my all time favorite is posted over urinals in men's rooms around the country, saying "one small step closer to the urinal is one giant leap for civilization".
Anyway, the obviously inexperienced reporter wanted to know my take on the whole thing. I've dealt with a lot of Chinese reporters before, and I have learned the hard way to be very careful about what I say. Interviews such as these are hazardous, as they're almost never quoted verbatim, and the reporter is almost always interested in having you make sweeping, uninformed generalizations about China and your home country. You can select from the following possible outcomes: a) sound like a bigot, b) sound like a mindless pro-China running dog, or c) sound like a total idiot.
Here are some of the hard-hitting journalistic gems that were tossed my way:
- In your opinion, how civilized is Kunming?
- How civilized is China compared to the United States?
- Which uncivilized behaviors in China annoy you the most?
- What do you think civilization training should focus on?
In the end I broke down and gave the reporter a bit of a lecture on civilization. We started with the distinction between "civilized" and "civilization", adjective and noun. Though people may say that certain actions such as spitting and cutting in line are "uncivilized", that has nothing to do with civilization. Civilization is a blossoming of high culture, literature, the arts, technology, etc that blossoms from complex societies. The only part any government can play in making that happen is provide a bit of order and then step aside and allow it to flourish. I also told her that in my humble opinion, Kunming is a rather civilized place. In fact, I just wrote an article in Yunnan Magazine about Kunming's outsized contributions to modern Chinese thought.
I went on for quite a while, but it all went in one ear and out the other. I'm actually a bit worried about how the interview is going to look when it hits the press.