December 4, 2013, by Tony Hong

Pollution and Civilisation

By Felicity Woolf,

Studying an MA in Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham Ningbo China.

Recently when I looked out of my kitchen window, the view beyond the first few tower blocks was shrouded in thick mist; pollution hung heavy in the air. Yesterday a colleague had questioned our cavalier attitude towards cycling to and from the university without face masks to combat the fumes. Today she sent us the app for pollution levels in the city. This links to a website that monitors the air quality of cities across China – . The reading for Ningbo this morning was 250 – Very Unhealthy. We decided that perhaps, after all, we should go to Decathlon at the weekend and invest in some masks, although I think that the curiosity we might evince on our route may make us regret our decision.

Reporting on air quality is one of a number of requirements for cities that aspire to be accredited as a National Civilised City (see this for more details). Ningbo has twice met the requirements (renewable every three or four years) in the nine categories. The evaluation to ensure that a city meets the standards is carried out by incognito inspectors from the City Investigation Team of the National Bureau of Statistics. The local Spiritual Civilisation Office prepares a city for the inspection. The inspectors check the public infrastructure as well as the behaviour of the public – so they try taxis and buses, but also note how many people give up their seat to the elderly or pregnant women. 

Part of my career has been spent devising criteria for evaluation and methods for checking standards, so the whole process of the National Civilised City is rather interesting to me. However, I can’t help thinking that assessing a city of over 6 million people for its level of Civilisation is a whole different ball game from anything I’ve ever done in arts education. Still, being one of those secret inspectors might be rather fun.

Anyway, despite having achieved the standard for reporting air quality, the pollution is certainly still here in Ningbo, although, as yet, nothing compared to Beijing, Shanghai or Xi’an. This is but one example of the credibility gap between what is said and what actually happens. For example, to be a Civilised City, at least 8% of the population has to take part in voluntary activity, and 90% need to be aware of voluntary opportunities. I realise that this explains the pleasant, but hopelessly ineffective volunteers standing with little yellow flags at intersections in the mornings attempting to stop e-bikers going over red lights.  Presumably, these people have upped the volunteer quota for the local authority’s figures.

Happily, as we cycle into the university’s green campus, the air quality improves massively, and in fairness to Ningbo’s government, half of our journey is alongside an extensive park which also helps to combat the pollution from traffic. Recently, bright orange Boris Bike hire stations have appeared beside the park, presumably to encourage cycling. No motor bikes are allowed in the city and buses run on LPG.

I find that another credibility gap exists in terms of the idea of Chinese culture that is promoted in my Beijing University language text book and what people actually do and enjoy. I’ve just completed a chapter in which three students explain that their favourite hobbies are Chinese chess, calligraphy and Taiji. When I showed this to my (young) private language teacher she couldn’t stop laughing. She finds all three utterly boring and believes that only older people do them. Of course, she says, young people here actually like surfing the internet, chatting on social media, going to karaoke bars, listening to music and watching films, although the CCP only allows 20 foreign films a year to be distributed in China in an attempt to support the Chinese film industry.

One of my seminar tasks for this week is to discuss the global spread of contemporary Chinese culture through its well-funded media outlets. The last leader, Hu Jintao, believed that one of the West’s strategic plots was to flood China with Western popular culture, and that China should combat this with her own strong culture. I think he’s probably right about the ubiquity of western culture – especially its Hollywood and Disneyland derivatives and its fast food – but at the moment, I can’t see that a diet of chess, calligraphy and Taiji, along with English language newspapers, films and CCTV programmes constrained by the Party line are going to offer effective competition.

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