Sources of Chinese Conduct: Pissing on the Street

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China has experienced unprecedented changes over the past two generations. Its economy has grown to be the second largest in the world (the first largest by some measures). Hundreds of millions of its citizens enjoy a standard of living unimaginable just forty years ago. Its elder leaders and teachers grew up in a largely rural society. They experienced some of the worst famines and societal upheavals in history. And yet, in 2018, roughly 60% of China’s enormous population lives in urban areas, a number projected to increase significantly in the next twenty years.

Nowhere are the effects of this urbanization more evident than in Shenzhen. The city of 10+ million in southeastern Guangdong Province was little more than a series of fishing villages before it was declared the first special econoimc zone (SEZ) in ??? This thriving metropolis has since become one the country’s main hubs of trade, finance, and innovation.

The crescent-shaped urban sprawl begins in the southeast with the bustling, often-chaotic Dongmen Market. The Chinese expression 人山人海 (lit: people mountain, people sea) seems apt for an area that, according to a survey I conducted in 2014, receives approximately half-a-million visitors on any given weekend. The narrow alleys, wet markets and vibrant street vendors season this border area with the spice of raw, human commerce.

Moving west along the main arc of the city, we come to Futian and Coco Park, Windows of the World, and swooping south, finally arrive at Shekou. These areas, in varying degrees, are sharp departures from the street-level petty capitalism of Dongmen. The shimmering windows of high-rise office buildings tower above broad, clean boulevards. There are numerous high-end malls, and both the shopping and eating are priced for the business elite, Chinese and expat alike. Yet, one thing unites the decidedly distinct eastern and western parts of the city: the sight of parents letting their children piss on the street.

I’ve seen it at 9:00 on a Friday night on the busiest pedestrian road in Dongmen, and I’ve seen it at noon on a Monday in one of the ritziest malls in southern China at Coco Park. A toddler with crotchless sweatpants squats by the curb, while his father checks text messages. A mother holds her daughter over a trashcan, with a public restroom no more than 20-feet across the hall. Interestingly, a nationwide poll revealed that only 11% of Chinese people think it’s not okay for parents to let their children piss in public.

anti-spitting_posterPublic expulsion of bodily fluids, hopefully limited to urine and saliva, are both common and relatively harmless in villages of 200, 300, or even a thousand households. Let’s not forget that no more than thirty years ago, the majority of China still lived in such places, and that these people are today’s parents, grandparents, teachers and leaders. But, in cities of ten, twenty, even thirty million people, with some of the highest population densities on earth, these rural norms quickly become public health hazards. In fact, the Chinese authorities embarked on an aggressive campaign to end public spitting during the SARS epidemic. I hope it won’t take another major outbreak for them to take action on public urination.

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