The stories you should be paying attention to – and the ones you might have missed.James Chambers on the Chinese city’s spotless façade and the welcome grime just beneath its surface.
James Chambers on the Chinese city’s spotless façade and the welcome grime just beneath its surface.
Chinese cities are not renowned for being tidy places but my first experience of visiting the country since the pandemic was a reminder that this is no bad thing. Jiangjin is a satellite city of Chongqing in which about a million people live on the banks of the Yangtze and the doorstep of modernity. Down by the water’s edge, residents wash the dust from their clothes (the style is more 1990s Hong Kong than present-day Seoul), while cargo ships sail by and fighter jets soar overhead. Fruit sellers and knife sharpeners peddle their wares from carts; just don’t try to pay in cash.
When I arrived for a two-week stay earlier this year, much of the population seemed to be mobilised for a huge beautification campaign, adopting the type of mass- participatory approach that only authoritarian countries can really pull off. Everywhere I walked, paving stones were being repointed, communal areas in apartment towers covered with a fresh lick of paint and falling leaves plucked from the air before hitting the ground. If the work teams wearing red armbands were not busying themselves with the big clean-up, they were standing vigil, watching out for incivility. Men continued to chain-smoke but there were no discarded butts to be found. The lack of litter and loutish behaviour made the place feel like a film set. A fake Chinese city. The type of Potemkin village that North Korea reserves for overseas visitors.
My first guess was that the big man from Beijing must be making a visit, or at least a member of his senior team. I was right about the inspection. The inspectors, though, were not from Beijing but from a clean-city competition – and Jiangjin was in the running. The next day I watched in astonishment as the driver of an expensive car was denied the opportunity to illegally park. A fierce lady in volunteer uniform had sprinted down the road at the first sight of potential foul play. The car owner duly departed. No swearing, no altercations, no entitled antics.
Those of us who enjoy visiting China value the warm hospitality and wicked sense of humour that comes without any pretence; rules are there to be worked around and little is ever truly immaculate. Fortunately, this urban charade didn’t last. Almost as soon as the last inspection vehicle rolled out of town, I spotted the first cigarette butt on the ground. Then another. Then another. Pretty soon the red arm bands had all come off, the mahjong games had returned and the whole city went back to normal. A million minor transgressions and a collective sigh of relief.
No mayor or provincial leader could admit as much but there is something about a bit of dirt and disobedience that brings cities to life, no matter where they are in the world or what political system they operate under. Singapore is the archetypal clean city. It is heaven to some and a dystopian theme park to others. When I think of my favourite cities – New York, London, Istanbul, Hong Kong, Bangkok – most have a thin layer of grime within easy reach. They are shiny in some areas, grubby in others. Public transport is my principal exception to this. Subway trains in Asia tend to be immaculate and riding in a clean carriage – something that unites Hong Kong, Singapore and Bangkok – makes for a much safer and more enjoyable ride than the equivalent experience in the West. Jiangjin recently welcomed its first overground rail line and passengers sit obediently on board like schoolchildren in the front row of class. Civic pride should be encouraged and litterbugs publicly shamed but a little rough around the edges makes a city human, and humane.
James Chambers is Monocle’s Asia editor, based in Bangkok.