The South Korean reporter Cha Han-phil stirred
up a hornet's nest with a post on his personal
blog about "Shameless Chinese People." In the post he describes
a scene on a train ride through Henan
province that leads him to conclude Chinese people "lack public morality."
For his comments, Cha was labeled a racist. He has since removed the post from
All accusations of racism aside, anyone who has traveled on a hard-seat train
in China can attest to the kernel of truth in Cha's description. The ride is
indeed a chaotic affair. Peasants lean back, take their shoes and socks off,
and make themselves as comfortable as possible, which includes spitting shells
and rinds onto the floor, putting their calloused feet up on tables, and leaning
out of the windows hollering and smoking.
Although Cha's sketches may be spot-on, his conclusions lack depth, and for
this he was lambasted by his readers. As his blog is a personal one, his lack
of analysis might be forgiven. In an interview
with the Asia Times, Cha expressed his hope that China would "embrace
his criticisms generously."
One of the replies to Cha's post argued that the description of China would
also be an apt description of Korea 15 to 20 years ago, and this is the crux
of the whole story.
China is in the midst of a modernizing process that began 100 years ago during
the last days of the Qing
Dynasty. One of the dynasty's last-ditch efforts to adapt to the changing
world around it were the New
Policies, issued in the first decade of the 20th century. These policies
had a variety of aims, chiefly to forge tighter links between the tottering
empire and its subjects through a professional police force, a modernized bureaucracy
more attuned to the needs of the people, and campaigns to improve education,
the economy, and public morality.
Kristin Stapleton's book Civilizing
Chengdu: Chinese Urban Reform 1895-1937 investigates how the New Policies
affected this provincial capital deep in the interior of China. One of the main
figures in Stapleton's book is Zhou Shanpei, a high level bureaucrat and reformer
of the early 20th century. Zhou's hope was to transform Chengdu into a city
such as Tokyo, the model East Asian city at the time: clean, orderly, productive,
Some of Zhou's reforms included the regulation of beggars and prostitutes,
the creation of a professional police force, installation of street lamps and
public latrines, the establishment of public economic and cultural associations
under the supervision of the government, and the establishment of training institutes
All Zhou's work came to naught with the fall of the Qing, following the
Railway Protection movement, which started in Chengdu in 1911. The reforms
were put on hold as China battled itself and Japanese invaders for 20 years.
Then came Mao for another 40 years.
Under Mao's leadership, China went on a journey into another dimension, completely
removed from its past and veering sharply off course from its future. Modernization
in the four decades of Mao's rule was megalomaniacal insanity.
Since then, China has breathed a huge sigh of relief and re-embarked on the
modernization course that began 100 years ago.
Here in Chengdu, Zhou's reforms have been reincarnated. The district of Xiao
Jia He in the southwest of the city was once one large, tremendous brothel.
In the Strike Hard campaigns of 2002-2004, the red-light districts were shut
down and moved out of the city limits. Beggars and itinerant workers were shoved
out of the Second Ring Road or put to work. Rickshaws, a luxury item in Zhou's
Chengdu, were put under police supervision. Land was reclaimed and developed.
An exhibition center was built, an underground is under construction, factories
in the east side of the city have been shut down, schools shoot up left and
right… the list is endless. Since the Develop
the West forum in 2000, Chengdu has shaken off the doldrums of provincial
life and the Communist era and begun to modernize itself.
Naturally, hot-pot restaurants in Chengdu are still filthy, greasy, boisterous
places. Public bathrooms, though greatly improved, are still rather putrid.
But one must keep in mind that Chengdu is roughly 10 years into a reform movement
with the goal of transforming this provincial capital into a modern East Asian
city like Singapore or Tokyo.
Most of East Asia, with the exception of Myanmar and North Korea (both still
wallowing in Mao-like lunacy), has long since modernized. Of course, those countries
had the luxuries of an unbroken development process and manageable population
levels. China, one of the last of the great nations to modernize, has a 50-year
gap in its development and a population of more than 1.3 billion.
Today's leaders do have one lesson to take from the Mao era: do not neglect
the peasantry. And they don't. Many of Chengdu's rich and powerful mandarins
focus much of their attention on the development of the municipality as a whole
and the surrounding second-tier cities. In another 10 years, Chengdu will be
as modern as Shanghai is now. Taken together with the New Policies era, then,
Chengdu has taken roughly 35 years to modernize: quite exceptional, when compared
to other modern nations.