Bike sharing habits reveal a nation’s character

By Xu Qinduo Source:Global Times Published: 2017/7/17 19:08:39

When Mobike, the largest bike sharing company in China, brought its rental bike scheme to Manchester, England, last month, the service was warmly embraced by local residents for its convenience and innovative business model.

But along with the growing popularity of Mobike, the first few weeks in the British city saw incidents of theft or vandalism, including bikes reportedly being thrown in the canal.

The incidents, especially the trashing of the bikes by a few young men, have stirred a new round of heated discussions on a long-standing topic within China: suzhi, or the lack of it. Suzhi, usually translated as character, usually boils down to one's upbringing, education, self-discipline and awareness of existing laws and rules. Suzhi is reflected through one's behaviors or manners, whether positively or not. 

Bike sharing has swept through the whole of China. The practice has been designated in an amusing way by Chinese riders as a "monster-revealing mirror," for its ability to reflect how monstrously disgracefully people can conduct themselves, such as kicking the bikes, damaging the QR code, hacking the lock and so on.

The introduction of bike sharing has highlighted the debate in a brand new way. For example, in big cities, like Beijing and Shanghai, some will make judgments about residents in a certain neighborhood by calculating the damage done to the shared bikes.

If you happen to see many ruined bikes in an area, somehow you're able to draw a conclusion about the suzhi of people nearby.

The current Chinese debate, if summarized with one sentence, centers on the complaint that our suzhi is too low and needs to be enhanced. Evidence is more than adequate. For example, you probably met someone who acts rudely, jumps the queue, or speaks loudly in public areas. 

We put so much emphasis on our suzhi that even our education reform is often carried out under the theme of promoting better character for our next generations. 

As for bike sharing companies, the monster-revealing mirror, some of the vandalism is unquestionably due to a lack of suzhi. But at the same time, viewing the incidents only through the lens of individual acts could be misleading.

For example, it's indeed shocking to see piles and piles of bikes under bridges in Beijing, or the intentional kicking and trashing of bikes by some outraged auto drivers. 

Yet the fact is, as the bike-renting companies race to expand their market shares, an unexpected problem has come into being. Parked bikes often occupy so much public space that they have in some cases become road blocks, seriously affecting normal traffic flow.

The over-concentration of the bikes at some popular subway stops actually represents a new challenge to urban management, which, in cities like Beijing with a population of more than 22 million, often proves thorny to deal with.

In cases like these, the monster-revealing mirror reflects more of a management headache than a lack of suzhi of any particular individuals.

What's also noteworthy is when we complain about some bad manners, we are often critical of ourselves, carrying an assumption that people in Western and developed economies have better character. They don't spit or litter.

Spitting is such a bad habit that it often turns people's stomach. But China is traditionally an agrarian society where most of the folks used to live in the country. If you spend most of your life in the field, spitting probably wouldn't pose any problems. 

Correspondingly, if a kid grows up in an apartment furnished with carpet or hard floor, the kid is more likely to form good habits, free of littering or spitting.

So in a sense, some of the bad behavior is inherently related to a country's development stages. As China's urbanization process continues, which stands at close to 60 percent, our suzhi is expected to improve accordingly.

The act of damaging the bikes can actually be better and more accurately described as vandalism. But "vandalism" doesn't sound strong enough to express our frustration and outrage toward this bad behavior. So we prefer the word suzhi, which is biting and pungent, indicating being ill-bred or uncivilized.

Although this judgment is harsh, it is also encouraging, because it reveals the collective wish and desire of Chinese people to build a community in which every citizen follows the rules, behaves themselves and treats each other respectfully.

The incidents that happened to Mobike in Manchester, if anything, may console us in the fact that we aren't alone and even people from a developed country sometimes act in an ugly way.  But that's not enough. We should and can do better, given how obsessed we are with suzhi.

The author is a commentator on current affairs with the China Radio International.

Posted in: VIEWPOINT

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