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Campaigns show creativity but may yield limited results
2015-06-01
By Doug Young

TWO campaigns aimed at improving public behavior are at center stage in this week’s Street View, spotlighting different ways that Shanghai is tackling the many smaller problems that come with its rapid modernization.

One instance has the city using the “face factor” to promote more responsible behavior, in this case by shaming litterbugs. The city is taking a harder line in the second case, threatening black marks on credit records of people who use their properties for illegal group apartments.

Both cases target forms of behavior that need to be discouraged, but aren’t bad enough to justify legal action like arrest or even big fines that could have more of a deterrent effect. That means the city has to look for other ways to combat these kinds of problems.

I have to commend our officials for their creative and varied approaches, even if I sometimes doubt the effectiveness.

The first campaign saw the city appoint a team of 1,000 volunteers with a mission to clamp down on litterbugs. The volunteers will use cameras to catch people in the act of littering, with most of the volunteers coming from bus and taxi drivers. Images will then be uploaded onto the Internet to shame the offenders into changing their behavior.

This particular campaign looks quite similar to others that I’ve seen recently, which are mostly focused on the idea of shaming people into stopping undesirable behavior. Most such campaigns are aimed at relatively minor offences, such as disobeying traffic rules or jumping subway turnstiles.

The idea is that no one will want friends or acquaintances to see his name or photo appear on a public signboard or the Internet, and thus will behave more responsibly.

I thought this concept seemed quite smart when I read about it the first time, due to the importance that most Chinese place on the concept of face. But I’ve never seen any of the actual photos or other posted material used to shame such people, so I did a quick poll on Weibo to see if anyone else had seen anything and to ask for general thoughts.

None of the seven or eight people who responded to my unscientific poll had ever seen anything either, and many also doubted the effectiveness of this approach. I was also slightly surprised that many said such an approach was too severe because it violated people’s privacy. But after some thought, I realized I certainly wouldn’t want footage of me crossing the street against a red light to appear on the evening news or even on a website.

The second item used the different approach of threatening people’s credit records if they used their properties for illegal group apartments. Such apartments are often quite cramped, unsanitary and even dangerous, and the problem made headlines last year when two firemen died after an explosion threw them from a building while they fought a blaze at one such apartment.

Under the new proposal, anyone who illegally modifies their property will have the offense noted on their credit record. Such an action could theoretically impact their future ability to get bank loans, or even to get a job.

New approaches

This use of credit records is quite new in China, but it’s been in use for quite a while in the US and is a critical tool for the financial services industry. People who behave irresponsibly with their finances, such as failing to pay bills, often have difficulty getting credit cards or other loans. But that said, something like making illegal modifications to an apartment probably wouldn’t appear on someone’s credit record in the US, and instead the person would probably just face a fine.

Most of these approaches are new and didn’t exist just a few years ago, partly because many of the problems they tackle didn’t exist or weren’t considered problems.

Irresponsible littering has actually been quite common in China for decades due to lack of environmental awareness. But it’s become worse lately as millions of migrants move to cities like Shanghai and also as people generally consume more with rising income levels. Illegal apartments didn’t exist until recently either, since the economic migrants who comprise most of their tenants didn’t exist in large numbers until the last decade.

At the end of the day, I have some doubts about the effectiveness of this latest anti-littering campaign since few, if any, offenders will even realize they’ve been publicly shamed. I can also see some logic to the privacy argument, and suspect this kind of public shaming approach may ultimately get shelved.

The credit black mark approach looks a little more prudent. But even in that case, officials may have to become more selective about what they put on people’s records to keep them concise and relevant to their central purpose, which is to help others determine someone’s creditworthiness.

 

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