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Politics of Improvement; China's Discourse on Quality

On some trains in China, a video is shown that visiting foreigners might find strange and even somewhat funny. Its message seems to be that one should not urinate on a Buddha statue, which, to most people appears to be a no-brainer.

Yet, videos such as this, with instructions on how to behave and not to behave in public, can be found in many places throughout Chinese cities. Some might consider this to be just one more of China’s oddities. However, there is a whole societal discourse behind this kind of “public education”.

The first time this phenomenon caught the eye of the wider Western press was probably during the forerun to the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. The New York Times and the BBC rather gleefully ran stories such as “No Spitting on the Road to Olympic Glory, Beijing Says” and “Olympic crackdown on China’s bad habits”, referring to efforts by the Chinese government as well as civilians to offer a more “presentable” and “civilised” picture of Beijing in the international spotlight.

Today, the fruits of these public education campaigns can be found everywhere in China; the aforementioned Public Service Announcements (PSA) in trains and buses, propaganda posters, signs in toilets (after all, “civilization begins here”, says a sign in the toilets of Nanjing University’s Zengxianzi Building, instructing men to stand closer to the urinals) murals, that teach you to recycle and assist the elderly, and so on. Why does China seem so obsessed with the appearing civilised, especially considering that it is one of the oldest civilisations on earth?

Some China scholars believe the answer lies in the discourse of Suzhi (素质,) that permeates Chinese society. Suzhi literally means “quality”, but it expresses much more than the English term. According to Tamara Jacka, Professor at the Department of Political and Social Change at the College of Asia and the Pacific of the Australian National University, Suzhi is significant on both the broader social and individual level. It signifies education, behaviour, speech, consumption (of the right products) and urbanity. It intersects with, or is part of other discourses, like the one on Wenming (文明) or “civilization”. While, according to Jacka, one important aspect of Suzhi is the education of children; it can be found in nearly every part of Chinese society; it also serves as an important category of difference, as in who has low and who has high Suzhi; rural migrants vs. urbanites, women vs. men, and so on.

There are different theories about the origin of this discourse. While some consider it a decidedly neo-liberal concept, connected to individualistic self-improvement and exposure to global culture, others, such as Gary Sigley, Associate Professor for Asian Studies at the University of Western Australia, believe it has older roots. The Suzhi discourse in its current form first appeared in the 1980s and 1990s, but according to Sigley, it is connected to Maoist politics of improvement. These "politics of improvement” refer to the notion that human beings can planned and improved through regulation, much like a socialist economy.

In any case, most scholars seem to agree that the underlying cause for the current discourse on Suzhi lies mainly with concerns, especially by elites, about a perceived “lack” of “quality” in Chinese people. Hence the aforementioned PSAs are all geared toward instructing people to behave in a more “civilized” manner, whatever that means. However, many, especially younger Chinese, consider these messages as not so important. “I personally wouldn’t particularly pay attention unless they are pretty witty or reflect a social issue that I relate to,” says Li Guanrong, a linguistics student from Shanghai. Li also noted that the messages have become more subtle and less direct in their instructions over the past years.

All these PSAs and other forms might seem silly and superfluous at first glance. However, they can be expressive of deeper social and cultural discourses and they can teach us a lot about what is important when considering proper behaviour in China, or rather that which is perceived and presented as proper behaviour.




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