The posters, recorded messages and other constant reminders are pervasive. Thousands have been hired to tidy up, paint stuff, install things, repair ancient potholes, attempt to control traffic and otherwise look extremely busy. Something is very clearly up in the Spring City. But just what is this immense effort to create Wenming Kunming (文明昆明)?
Like a lethargic student preparing for an important test, the city is gearing up for a final exam of its own, one that has been in the making for nearly three years. Soon, or maybe even today, auditors from Beijing will arrive to poke, prod and inspect to see if Kunming cuts the mustard in terms of being a 'Civilized City' (文明城市).
The honorific is awarded by a government entity called the The Central Steering Committee for the Construction of a Spiritual Civilization (中央精神文明建设指导委员会). In the case of China's Spring City, all the current jockeying to receive the title may be an extravagant case of keeping up with the Joneses. Kunming, it turns out, is one of only three provincial capitals not to have been awarded the 'Civilized City' moniker, the other two being Haikou (海口) and Xining (西宁).
A municipality must meet a series of stringent criteria to garner the coveted name. These standards include, but are in no way restricted to, cleanliness, morality, understanding of common sense regarding transportation, prevailing levels of politeness, overall citizen satisfaction with government services, and the functionality of a city's utility service sector.
And so, beginning earlier this year, Kunming officials from seemingly every bureau imaginable rolled out extremely lengthy to-do lists. Woe-begotten city management officers were ordered to scrape years' worth of accumulated handbills from business and apartment building facades. Trash trucks across town were repainted, as were many overpasses, public restrooms, schools and hospitals. The bulbs were changed in thousands of streetlights burnt out long ago. The list goes on and on.
A phalanx of workers — seemingly overnight — put up placards, billboards, posters and decorated buses everywhere with a slogan extolling people to "Create a national civilized city". Quotes from President Xi Jinping have also appeared ubiquitously, especially those concerning a description of the Chinese Communist Party. To wit: "Wealthy and strong, democratic, civilized, harmonious, free, fair, just, legal, patriotic, hard-working, honest and friendly."
Beyond sloganeering, orderly traffic is also a serious point of concern. Over the past few months the Kunming traffic police have put up 28 kilometers of fencing designed to clearly separate car, bus and bicycle traffic. The city has also recruited more than 4,500 auxiliary workers and volunteers to tame sometimes unruly traffic until the end of July. Beginning in April, 1,100 railway police were deployed to streets around Kunming Train Station to stop people on bicycles and electric scooters from running red lights. This endeavor will also continue through July.
Military personnel are in on the act as well. Some 5,000 officers, soldiers, reservists and their spouses have spent the past two months working to clean up neighborhood dumpsters and corral stray trash. In total, they have reportedly collected 1,100 tons of garbage and cleaned up 198 kilometers of road.
And still the list of things to be done goes on. All 10,000 taxi drivers working in the city must be issued new uniforms this month. Meanwhile, every municipal government employee — as well as those in state-owned companies — was sent an identical text message. It warned of auditors riding public buses checking to see if the elderly who are given seats say 'thank you'.
The process of being inspected and scored as a 'Civilized City' candidate takes three years. For Kunming, steps were first taken in 2015, then again the following year, and now — at some unannounced point — in 2017. A given metropolis receives 15 percent of its total score the first year, 25 the next and 60 percent at the end of the evaluation period. The name is an honor only, and comes with no tangible rewards. No matter the outcome, Kunming's creeping nightmare of fastidiousness will come to an end soon.
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