BEIJING — Newspapers in the West are often bent on exposing cover-ups. But one of China's most popular papers has mounted a campaign to do the opposite: It wants to cover up the exposed.
Its target is the scads of men in Beijing wandering around shirtless, putting their often less-than-perfect physiques on public display as they try to beat the heat.
Whenever summer comes on, shirts come off in the Chinese capital. But because the Olympic Games are due to be held here in 2008, the Beijing Youth Daily says it's time for the city's male population to start showing a little more modesty and a little less skin--to become, as it says, more "civilized."
In June, the paper launched a drive to shame offenders into putting some clothes on. Nearly every day, it features a photo spread of one or more bare-chested men caught on candid camera. The men who find their scantily clad selves splashed in the paper's pages can then go to the Beijing Youth Daily's office to claim a free T-shirt proclaiming "Civilizing Beijing Begins with Me."
Recent photos have shown men young and old, tall and short, fat and thin, baring their torsos all over town.
There are shirtless men milling in front of skyscrapers in Beijing's business district. Old men sit topless in residential alleyways, playing Chinese chess or just shooting (and enjoying) the breeze. Men with tanned upper bodies fish in the lakes abutting the Forbidden City. Others tool around on bikes.
There's nary a washboard stomach in sight; these photos won't make the cover of Men's Fitness. Pictures of well-fed guts, like that of one man caught napping shirtless in a hammock, are embarrassingly common.
"Foreigners who visit always ask why there are so many half-naked men in Beijing," said Cao Shui, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing. "It's not civilized."
Cao is compiling a study of Beijing's public image in advance of the Olympics. There are more pressing image problems to address than topless men, he says, citing such issues as the environment and the fledgling service economy. But he sees value in the Beijing Youth Daily's modesty campaign.
Beijing is no stranger to drives to improve behavior. Soon after the Olympic Committee awarded the city the 2008 Summer Games in July last year, the municipal government drew up a list of a dozen habits, including spitting and swearing, that it wanted Beijingers to get rid of. It set up "spiritual civilization" centers where people could learn nicer manners.
The Beijing Youth Daily recently conducted its own survey to determine what most harms Beijing's image, and public expectoration and exposure were identified as the top two problems. It decided to tackle the latter.
So far, said the person in charge of the paper's campaign--a woman surnamed Zhang, who refused to give her full name--the response has been "very warm."
Community chalkboards in some neighborhoods, which usually extol the virtues of birth control, now urge male residents to keep their shirts on. The Beijing Evening News reported that 10,000 farmers in the city's Tongzhou district signed a pledge to "Say Goodbye to Going Topless."
The Beijing Youth Daily has already handed out more than 2,000 T-shirts to the men displayed on its pages, to other bare-chested guys who didn't quite make the cut for publication but who were spotted by T-shirt-toting photographers and to the many willing amateur photographers who have sent in photos, Zhang said.
The paper tries to protect an offender's identity by printing a black bar over his eyes. But people have recognized themselves and neighbors with little difficulty.
Not that everyone minds. The naked truth is that for many Beijingers, going around topless--or, in another popular habit, rolling one's shirt up to bare the midriff--is no big deal.
In fact, they say, these practices are a long-standing tradition, and a sensible one when the temperature hits the 90s and the heat clings to you like a wet T-shirt anyway.
"Not everybody can afford air conditioning. This is the only way to deal with the heat," said Guo Lin, 37, a factory worker who sat shirtless outside his apartment building one recent afternoon. The beginnings of a beer belly gently lapped over the top of his shorts.
"I don't see any problem with it," he added. "This is an old Beijing habit. Of course I'll put on a shirt when I receive guests, but on ordinary days, nobody cares or complains. My neighbors all do the same, and so do my friends."
The Beijing Youth Daily's shame-them-into-modesty campaign is scheduled to run through the end of the summer.
Whether it will have any impact beyond that remains to be, well, seen.