The Olympics are approaching. But the athletes are not the only ones training. The citizens of Beijing are also training -- and not necessarily because they want to. The government has introduced all sort of education courses on the capital’s residents, which range from English through fitness to behavioural improvement.
Learning how to cheer
Welcome to Beijing! The countdown to the big day has begun. The Olympic Games open on the 8th of August. And Beijing will not only be scene of multiple sporting events but it will also present the polished side of the world’s future leading power. Millions of guests are expected. About half a million from abroad.
The authorities want them to feel welcome and comfortable. But it might not be easy for the non-Chinese speaking ones. Most street signs are in Chinese for example. And not that many Chinese speak English. This is why the government has been trying to get Beijing residents to learn English. Especially the taxi drivers -- a crucial point of contact between guests and locals. They’re all learning how to say "hello" or "where to" or "here we are". The transport authorities have also published a brochure with 100 practical phrases in English.
But not everyone is taking this education campaign as seriously as the government would hope. Mr He for example. He’s been driving a taxi in Beijing for 20 years. He knows the city like the back of his hand and say’s he’s the best cabdriver in the world:
„If I could speak English, I wouldn’t be a taxi driver. Should I stop driving my cab during the Games because of my lack of English? I can only say one thing: "Bye bye!""
Vocab lists and fact sheets are being distributed all over the city as part of the English-learning campaign -- in schools and universities, offices and housing estates -- but pensioner Mrs Feng doesn’t see the point:
„Young people have to have English and computer skills but what do we pensioners need them for? With whom can we talk? I think the money should be used for other more useful projects and we should be left alone with this whole English learning."
Fitness and good manners
And there are other projects. The 1 - 2 - 1 national fitness programme for example. With this campaign the authorities are hoping that people will do some sport at least once a day and get examined by a doctor at least once a year. The Chinese government doesn’t want any unfit residents to be seen on the streets during this Olympic year. The host country has to present itself in its very best form.
Yet another government campaign to educate citizens -- this one is to get them to shed their bad manners. To stop shoving, swearing, spitting, burping and the like. What used to be part and parcel of everyday life is now frowned upon in public. Especially spitting on the ground loudly even though the noise is jokingly referred to as China’s second national anthem. It is apparently not music to the ears of the government and some of the expected guests. All perpetrators of this crime will be fined 50 yuan -- about five euros.
But these campaigns are not as successful -- the Chinese have changed and are not easily persuaded by films, posters and brochures anymore, says Professor Zhou Xiaozheng from the sociology institute of Renmin University in Beijing:
„The government doesn’t trust the citizens to behave properly and is worried about being disgraced in the eyes of several foreign visitors. But many citizens don’t care anymore about the government. It’s a bit late now to try and change their behaviour. If the bride has to go to the altar tomorrow you can’t sew her dress today."
However, there is one thing the capital’s residents don’t need to be taught because they’ve already mastered it -- the perfect smile. And the government would be well-advised to take comfort in that. A smile can go a long way even if Beijing might seem a bit raw-edged to a foreigner at first. As long as Beijingers are smiling, the world can come because they are ready.