Bad Behavior, Its Reason, and Future

Under this blog entry Beer Can by the Highway vs Spitting about bad behavior like spitting, traffic rules (jay walking) and pushing in China, Stephen left comments, and I posted my response. It seems it worth sharing with more readers in case you ignored the comment part.

Disclaimer: Although we hold different point of view, I’d like to thank Stephen for pointing out a valid point, and he has all my due respect for doing this.

JS, your comment is not only passive but evasive!

Look at Singapore, you can call the ruling party the dictator, but it represent an effective government.

Posted by: stephen on March 12, 2009 11:10 PM

My first response:

As I always insist, to compare China and Singapore is always the easiest mistake to make. Singapore’s total population (4.6 million as of July 2008) is just like a district of a city like Shanghai. A pretty small city is bigger than Singapore. If there were only 4.6 million people in a city, and there is a immigration system to choose who can come into the city, that is much easier job to do. (Imagine twice as many migrate workers rushing into Singapore in one day)

China is a very diverse country. You can see the span of very uncivilized behavior mixed with very nice people – that is all about the different stages. The more people you are, the more diverse they are, the more time people need to move forward.

Having said that, I am not saying that everything is exactly right, or the government shouldn’t play a better role to speed up the civilization process. Yes. I do believe one of the root cause of some of the bad behavior comes from the bad government, not working education system, and many other things. However, I am optimistic about positive changes in the future. To understand that everything needs time to change, instead of cannot change is a big step. When I do some study about what China looks like before 1940’s, and talk with some very old people who were educated before 1940’s, I was shocked to see how good their behavior are. The current behavior of people were made by poverty, wars, culture revolution, broken communist dream, and the dramatic society change after opening up again… There is a history behind everything. You can never talk about something without looking at its history, especially when you are talking about 1/4 of the earth’s population.

Posted by: Jian Shuo Wang (external link) on March 12, 2009 11:32 PM

Then Stephen’s response:

JS, thank you for your explicit comment!

I cannot envisage the present social norm is the result of the past history of China.

The City of Shanghai deployed an army of traffic assistances to guard the major intersections to prevent jay-walking and the result is encouraging.

I don’t see people smoking in a confined space when a ‘no-smoking’ sign is posted.

So don’t think the installation of contemporary norm and moral standard in China is a daunting task.

Posted by: stephen on March 13, 2009 1:08 AM

The traffic assistants example is very interesting. In case you don’t know what it is, in most cross road (where there are traffic lights) in downtown Shanghai, there is one to two, sometimes 4 people standing there all day, just to use their arm to stop people who insist to go at red light, and sometimes give signs to the right turning cars not to rush into the people on the pedestrian, or horn too long to people before them.

Yes. I do think the army of traffic assistance helped a lot, but considering the quick change of people in the city (there are more people coming to this city than any previous year ever), the task is a long-lasting task. Shanghai is not isolated. This is all I want to say. You cannot just improve the level of people’s behavior within just one city. With the massive urbanization in China, the generation of Chinese people need to face the challenge of living in a city, which is never been faced before. Living in a city not only means the density of people is high, the requirement for public service is higher, it also means people need to get used to live with strangers (city is all about strangers, especially larger cities). So new norms need to be setup v.s the lives in villages. US has spent the last century changing the norms, so this is what you see what it looks like today. China need to do the transform, but it is a much bigger topic than deploying traffic assistant. The change is deep, and it takes time. China has already been forced to complete part of the change in 30 years, instead of several centuries. The quick change obviously resulted in some chaos, in the economy orders, and more obviously, in the disorder of social norms. Spitting, pushing, yelling in public, and traffic rules are just some of the more obvious sample of the disorder. The root cause and symptoms are far beyond that. Read the BBS post in major portals, can you can get some idea.

Again, having said that, I am still more optimistic about China’s future than anybody else. By understand how the current situation came into being, we understand that time will cure this. “Installation of contemporary norm and moral standard in China is a daunting task.” I completely agree, but I won’t be surprised or disappointed, if this process lasts for more than two generations. If that happens within the next generations, it is already be faster than I expected.

Posted by: Jian Shuo Wang (external link) on March 13, 2009 7:26 AM

I’d like more comments about this issue. My thought is always inspired by comments, and even better, by debates.

11 thoughts on “Bad Behavior, Its Reason, and Future

  1. Hi Jian Shuo,

    I thought I would add my 2 cents worth here too… now please, to all the SGpean readers, I am in no way complaining about this wonderful city or it’s people, I am just making an observation (perhaps it’s also a little off-topic).

    Although Singapore is renknowned globally for it’s cleanliness, and strict laws and fines for what some people would consider minor infractions, after having lived here for near on three years (in the heartlands), it is not always all as it seems on the surface. Sure, if one travels to Singapore and only visits tourist locations and stays in the Orchard Road or city area (and surrounding townships), one will see the kind of lovely and beautiful side of the country that it is well known for.

    However, in the heartlands areas (I live in Woodlands near the causeway at the Malaysia border), it is not uncommon to see people spitting in the streets… walking along Woodlands Ave 7, it is very common to see rubbish all along the side of the footpath (beer cans and bottles, food packets, cigarette butts, etc etc). I have personally witnessed a child getting hit by a speeding push-bike on the footpath and knock two of her teeth out. It is common all across SG for bike riders to illegally ride on the sidewalks – the government are helping this situation somewhat by installing dual designated footpaths in some areas now, and I applaud this initiative. I have even seen (more than once), parents letting their children defecate outside the Admiralty train station. Right in public and on the walkway.

    Anyway, as I said, I am not complaining – we love living in Singapore. I am just stating my observations, given the comments in your previous post… it’s important to note that unseemly behaviours can be found in some people in every country… it is not restricted to any particular location.

    To all my SGpean friends – please don’t ‘attack’ me on this… most people are law abiding, caring and respectful people here.

  2. Thanks for your comment, AussiePB. As I always believed, we are just the blind men seeing the world of elephant. Most people see clean Singapore (oh, elephant is like a rope), and other see it the imperfect side (a pole?). We obviously won’t say Singapore is not a clean country because of the existence of bad behavior, just as we cannot claim that everyone is perfect in a clean country.

    Regarding the strict law of Singapore, I also have some concerns. Sure. Enforce law strictly by theory is a good thing, but it really depends how the law is passed, and whether the law represent the interest of the majority.

    People in US, for example, complained that China do not enforce laws, with the assumption that laws in China were past the same way as in US, and represent what people want as in US (even in US, you can easily argue that this is not always true). Actually, it is not.

    I would say, the law enforcement has to have a strong foundation to support that. That is, the law has too be made by the people, passed by the people, and works for the people (pretty familiar terms, right?) If this foundation is not solid, enforcing laws can be a terrible thing.

    Or to put it the other way, if the all Chinese laws are really enforced, this blog may have already been shutdown, and I have already been put into jail. If laws in China are really enforce, there will be no space for “open and reform” policy, since everything Deng Xiaoping did was explicitly forbidden by the Constitution of this country. If all the laws were enforced, this will be the heaven of dictators, because people in charge can easily pass any law in several weeks. There are many cases like this recently. The national wide law reacts to international events as quick as CNN – when people in Taiwan vote for their president, the Anti-Secession Law came out of no-where, and was passed.

    So, before we figure out a way to make the law making process right, we need at least tolerate some significant problems there. Having said that, I am not saying that we should NOT follow the laws and enforce the laws, we should. But the right law, and the right enforcement is more complicated than chicken and egg problem. It is hard to say whether we should have which one first. They develops in parallel, and one tiny step on one side causes a tiny step on the other side. They constrain each other, and prevent the other pace to move faster. That is why change takes time.

  3. Looks like the obstacle of your social rectification goes all the way to the Constitution.

    I rest my case but god bless China!

  4. Well. I don’t want to put everything from legalization, to slow moving of habits, from variety of development stage to enforcement of laws into the same topic, but my point is, the bad habits and how to change is are a complicated problem. There is not simple answer or cure to deal with it.

  5. The whole opening up and reform of China started with breaking the laws that are not just and are blocking economic development of China. Not by changing those laws first and then tell people to follow. A lot of people had been executed or put to jail for doing things that are absolutely normal by today’s standards. Some of the law breaking Chinese should be considered heros.

    This seems irrelevant to the rude behaviors of Chinese people, but it is not always easy to tell which laws are there to be broken and which laws are to be followed. Take traffic laws for example, they are to be followed absolutely right? But what if there is a do not enter sign at the only exit of a parking lot, what would you do?

  6. I agree that to break law or not has little to do with bad behavior. I mentioned it only to prove that the single action of “enforcing law” may not be the answer of the problem, when the majority of the people still are not aware of them. If you enforce a law that 80% of people don’t agree, that is more like dictatorship or theorist, instead of practical laws.

    “DO NOT ENTER” sign at parking lot is a very good example. It shows several characters of good laws. 1) Most people in that residential area see the importance of it (to be more exactly, only people who drive understand the importance, and people never have a car don’t care at all. But they are not impacted by this sign, so we can ignore). 2) To put up a sign is typically reflection of the will of the community. So, that is often obeyed by the community members (although many strangers who don’t care about the community at all may break it).

    But for bigger scope laws, especially national wide laws, since there is no such process, it is often against people’s will, and such to break it is a hero action.

  7. I have been to Singapore and some part of China. Both have good points and bad points.

    Singapore in just a tiny small country compared to China. No doubt, ‘some Singaporean’

    are polite in the country, but mostly when they are across the border, like in Malaysia,

    Batam Island (Indonesia) or even further apart in Thailand.. they spent like king, drink and women

    at both hands… wild as they wish.. old and the young one alike. They spoilt the market,

    as everywhere they go and buy.. they will say aloud.. ‘cheap, cheap, very cheap!!!”.

  8. Last week when I was in Beijing, we encountered a motorcade of some government officials driving on the shoulder of the highway. When hearing the siren, I see a lot of drivers intentionally move to the shoulder just enough to block them. Would you say people are rude or heroic.

  9. About “jay walking”

    I am foreigner living in China and I personaly very often do jay walking. But the difference with most of Chinese is that I do a smart jay walking. I mean, i check carefully the cars, if I can cross without danger and without forcing a car to break, I cross.

    Why wait if there is no use?

    Furthermore, in China crossing on green light is not always safe, as the car can still turn right, and run over you.

    The problem is not to do or not to do jay walking, but that many people cross without checking the cars (whatever the light is red or green).

  10. @Adam, it takes some time for people in my country to get used to the reality that we already lived in the world with many cars. 20 years ago, there are not many cars in the cities. It takes a generation or two to get used to the new world.

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