BEIJING (Reuters) - Nothing is more revolting to Wang Tao than when one of his fellow Beijing residents hawks up a gobbet of phlegm before ejecting it with a splat on to a city pavement.
Spitting is still a common practice in China and with the Beijing Olympics on the horizon the 35-year-old worker at the Xicheng District Sanitation Bureau decided to do something about it.
“I was talking to some foreign friends and we agreed that spitting is the worst and ugliest habit of the Chinese,” Wang Tao told Reuters. “You should take a look at any overpass — blots of spit everywhere, it’s so disgusting.”
So at weekends Wang Tao and his growing band of Green Woodpeckers — Chinese schoolchildren are taught that woodpeckers help trees by eating harmful grubs — can be found on the streets of the capital trying to get people to give up the habit.
Wang Tao and his cohorts, who wear badges declaring themselves Clean City Volunteers, use the Chinese aversion to losing face in public in their battle.
“We give tissues to the people who spit and ask them to wipe up the spittle,” he said. “If they refuse, we do it in front of them. This kind of action is effective on most people.”
Wang Tao started his first anti-spitting campaign in May 2006 and initially recruited help from his friends before launching the jintan.org — “forbid spitting” — Web site which netted him more than 100 additional volunteers.
“I met him over the internet,” said Wang Daoyuan, a Green Woodpecker. “And I think he’s so brave to care about the public issues and do something to change it. So I thought I could also do something.”
Wang Daoyuan has since brought along her friends Jin Zhao and Cao Rui, all 22-year-old college students, to take part in weekend activities on the main streets of Beijing along with other volunteers from all walks of life.
“We’ve had school students, taxi drivers and office workers doing this together,” she said.
The spitting scourge is as much a matter of health as manners, Wang Tao believes, as it contributes to the hepatitis and tuberculosis infection rates in Beijing as well as the SARS outbreak that brought the city to a halt four years ago.
“During the SARS time, everybody knew spitting was bad...people challenged those who were spitting,” said Wang Tao, the son of a Chinese traditional doctor.
“Nobody dared to do so in such an atmosphere. But after SARS, people returned to what they had always done.”
The Beijing city government and Olympic organizers have become greatly concerned that spitting, littering, swearing and refusing to queue will spoil the atmosphere at next August’s Games.
Wang Tao’s work has subsequently won official backing. He was selected to become the representative of a state-run environmental campaign and invited to bring his volunteers to help out at the queuing days in Beijing.
The “promote queuing” campaign was launched in February and is being held on the 11th day of each month — “11” symbolizing “one after one”.
The government has now hired 4,000 professional queuing inspectors to ensure people line up at public sites, in particular at bus stops and subway stations.
The inspectors, easily spotted in their light blue jackets, red sashes and handkerchief-sized flags, are retired workers or unemployed, low-income residents.
Beijing residents tend to accuse the millions of migrant workers who have flooded into the city from the provinces of having the worst manners.
“Mostly it is the migrant workers who do not queue,” said Chen Yongzheng, one of the queuing inspectors.
Lan Xuejun, the Ethnic Office Director of Chaoyang District, agreed.
“Beijing has a complex population, some of whom are not aware of the manners — especially those from outside Beijing,” he said.
“We are working hard on educating the migrant workers. A moving library is traveling among the 10,000 construction sites in Chaoyang District and our night schools have trained more than 100,000 workers.”
Anecdotal evidence suggests that the problem is not limited to migrant workers and Wang Daoyuan said her worst experience had been with a Beijinger.
“It was last July. We saw a middle-aged man walking in Tuanjie Lake Park, half-naked,” she said. “We tried to persuade him to put his clothes on, but he kept swearing at us — in the richest local slang.”
Wang Tao admits there are some people who will never listen but the Green Woodpeckers are optimistic that the focus on the Olympics can improve behavior.
“I think we have made progress and with the education for the Olympic Games people are more and more aware of these issues,” said Wang Tao. “I believe the condition will be solved within three or five years. I’m firmly confident.”
Wang Tao has no plans to disband his organization once the spittle is removed forever from Beijing’s streets.
“When the spitting problem is solved, my next step is to work on protecting the environment and saving resources.”