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COLUMN ONE

The Polite Patriots of China

A former farming village is the role model for a national campaign to promote good behavior. 'Spiritual civilization' is seen as a way to reduce chaos as communism moves toward capitalism.

September 14, 1996|MAGGIE FARLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ZHANGJIAGANG, China — Along this city's broad, clean boulevards, placards on every lamppost remind citizens that they are blazing the way to China's future.

"Follow regulations," reads one. Ten yards down the road, another urges: "Love your country, love your city." A cyclist pedaling through town--cars are banned from most roads--will see the message to "Be a model citizen!" hundreds of times.

Welcome to Zhangjiagang, the cradle of China's new Cultural Revolution. The Yangtze River port city is President Jiang Zemin's pet project, a city-sized paradigm of political correctness--and an idealized model for the nation's development.

It is in this former farming village 90 miles northwest of Shanghai that the country's leaders have incubated what they hope is the perfect balance between communism and commerce. China's sudden move from Marxism to the market in the last decade has brought along with its sudden riches a tangle of corruption, social disorder and instability.

But this town's orderly streets, collectively owned factories and obedient citizens represent a wishful counterpoint to the messy economic miracle. The government has a name for it--"spiritual civilization"--and an ambitious plan to launch it across China beginning this autumn.

Twice a week, the townsfolk attend ideology classes where they study from the city's own Little Red Book, which outlines "clean" and "dirty" habits. Until recently, those caught gambling, quarreling with their neighbors or failing to put their rubbish in plastic bags had to wear yellow vests for a day to advertise their shame.

Those who obey family-planning rules, don't indulge in superstitious activities and keep their sidewalks tidy and swept are rewarded with a plaque declaring them a "New Wind Family"--in addition to tax exemptions and insurance benefits.

"Every single citizen except newborn babies is involved in building spiritual civilization," says the city's vice chief of propaganda, Li Jianzhong. His enthusiastic introduction of the city's virtues breaks off mid-crescendo when he spots a toothpick in the middle of the office floor. He springs out of his chair, plucks it off the tiles and carefully deposits it in a spittoon.

"It's a struggle to develop better humans," he continues, reseating himself. "We are the model for all of China!"

Only 820,000 people live in this socialist success story. But in 1995, nearly that many official visitors arrived by the busload to learn from Zhangjiagang and carry the lessons back to their home provinces.

The spirit is already spreading. Building spiritual civilization has been declared one of the country's top priorities, and Beijing is warming to its theme with a general cleanup--a "Strike Hard" crackdown on crime.

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Since April, police across the country have reported executing more than 1,000 criminals for even nonviolent offenses such as gambling and drug smuggling. In Beijing, billboards announce the new Nine Commandments, beginning with "Love your country." Nanjing has banned swearing and other impolite behavior.

Fujian province just created a "civilized citizen pledge" to be signed by every person in the region. Officials in China's five wealthy Special Economic Zones have been sternly warned to upgrade their moral standards. In large cities, shop signs with foreign names are being pulled down.

Liu Defu, a young conservative scholar who will present research on how to build "a new moral man" next month at the Communist Party's most important meeting of the year, explains what's behind the movement.

China is exploring "how to absorb the outstanding modern cultural achievements of all countries while resisting the corrosive influence of decadent capitalist things," Liu told Hong Kong's Ming Pao newspaper.

Indeed, as China goes through a painful transition from a centrally planned economy to one buffeted by market forces, the spiritual discipline campaign is the latest tool in an official struggle to reassert control. The campaign replays an age-old Chinese battle between outside and inside, old and new, balance and change.

China's traditional strength when it comes to foreign incursions and influence has been to absorb the good and cast out the bad, from the time of invading Mongol hordes centuries ago to the current era of multinational corporations.

But with a leadership at odds over how fast and how far to push ahead with reforms--state-run factories soon will be forced to sink or swim, for example, a requirement that is expected to result in widespread unemployment and discontent--good old-fashioned values are something everyone can agree on.

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