On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Chance for China to clean up its act

Tourists prefer to talk about the opportunity to
experience marvellous scenery, the rich cultural history and traditions, than
to point out a few Chinese idiosyncrasies.

Spitting is so prevalent that it happens just about everywhere – in restaurants
as you are eating, in buses or on the sidewalks, from the person standing next
to you and at just about all tourist spots.

But with the SARS outbreak, the Chinese authorities have the opportunity to
educate the people that it is unhealthy and unacceptable behaviour to spit in
public places.

To be fair, the Chinese Government has tried to curtail this nasty habit – even
before SARS became part our daily vocabulary – by imposing fines but it has
never been taken seriously because it is near impossible to enforce.

Heavy smoking among the mainlanders has also contributed to widespread
spitting. According to estimates, the average Chinese smoker puffs away more
than a pack of 20 sticks a day, with more and more of their countrymen lighting

Smoking may be socially unacceptable now in many Asian countries, including
Malaysia and Singapore, but in China smokers do not bother to ask their guests
for permission to light up in restaurants.

During a recent trip to Kunming in Yunnan, southern China, my 20-something
tourist guide was surprised when I voiced my unhappiness over smoking in

In China, this young man said, smoking was considered a ''macho'' thing
although the people knew the health dangers. Men were encouraged to smoke to
prove their manliness, he added.

It is impossible to stay in a hotel room that is free from cigarette smell. Unless
you are booked into a five-star hotel with non-smoking floors, you would have
to put up with the smell of stale cigarette smoke during your package tour
(where the accommodation is usually three-star.)

According to a study published in the British Medical Journal in 2001,
two-thirds of all young men in China's population of 1.27 billion people end up
as smokers. They use up 30% per cent of the world's cigarettes and the Chinese
Government is the largest producer of cigarettes in the world.

Public toilets are a nightmare in most parts of China. They make spitting and
smoking tolerable as little attention seems to be paid to keeping public
toilets clean.

Having travelled to almost 20 cities in China, I still find it a culture shock
when I have to look for toilets; these are sometimes just holes in the ground
or ditches. In many cases, toilets have very low wooden partitions; some do not
even have doors.

As a man, I have the advantage over women in many ways whenever I travel along
Chinese highways. I don't have to deliberate on this but my wife says the
''open air system'' is sometimes the best!

Despite having a weak stomach, I managed to control myself extremely well
during an overnight train ride along the Silk Road and once to Harbin, one of
the coldest parts of China.

It is good that the Chinese authorities are fully aware of these shortcomings.
In many major cities, the authorities have started to impose heavier fines on
its people for spitting.

In a similar development, the Beijing authorities recently decided to increase
the fine against chewing gum droppers at Tiananmen Square from 20 to 50 yuan
(US$2.40 to US$6) because nearly 1,000 people have been working to remove
600,000 wads of chewing gum carelessly discarded by residents and visitors.

The clean-up reportedly cost the Beijing authorities over a million yuan

Beijing has also initiated a programme to clean up hundreds of public toilets
and to equip them with modern facilities as the Chinese capital gears itself up
for the 2008 Olympics.

Aware of the huge income derived from tourism, the toilets at some tourist
spots are reserved for visitors.

That aside, China has to educate its people – in a revolutionary way – on the
need for personal hygiene.