As a weekend sandstorm coloured Beijing desert-yellow and residents were warned that the grainy air was unsafe to breathe, I stayed home trawling Delhi’s preparations for the forthcoming Commonwealth Games. Was I reading about the capital of India or China?
Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit says “we want to change Delhi’s public culture”. The line takes me back to the summer of 2008 when a communist official in a little black skirt told me, “We want to improve the citizens’ quality and human culture.”
As Delhi spends copious administrative machinery after getting inspired by the Communist Party of China’s ‘civilised’ game plan, it might be worth noting that Beijing did not evict bad manners in a temporary campaign. The Office of Capital Cultural and Ethical Progress Construction spent four years teaching Beijingers three-second handshakes, eight-teeth smiles and how to warmly applaud.
After four years and over four million etiquette pamphlets of the kind that Delhi is printing for its ‘rude’ citizens, the campaign had mixed results. The beggars of Beijing speak better English than the taxi-drivers who received free textbooks. The beggars say ‘hello’ and ‘money, money’. The taxi-drivers still say nihao, can’t say ‘left, right,’ and many of them still shoot spit with special sound effects.
New Delhi, I read, wants ten states to take their beggars back. After the Olympics tourists left, Beijing’s beggars came back to their spots outside malls selling knock-offs. If the Delhi government thinks its citizens are rude, try buying a Mao clock in Beijing’s counterfeit goods market. If you don’t buy, the salesgirls will ask you to never return. A normal sales practice is to clutch wrists in a kung fu grip.
Privately, Beijingers warmly applauded the end of the games so that they could get on with life. The English textbooks and etiquette lessons are forgotten. The Olympic rings that decked an arch opposite my apartment lie tossed on a parked truck. But the world is still talking about Beijing’s real Olympian change — new subways, airport, railway stations and continuing anti-pollution policies. That’s what Delhi needs to note.
As Beijing’s rival Shanghai reels under peer pressure to banish pyjamas in public and train Miss Etiquettes for the World Expo to take place between May and October, a party-backed newspaper recently ran a surprising editorial. It asked Shanghai to ‘take it easy’ because the event need not be perfect.
Several frequent-flying Chinese regularly tell me that India’s ‘public culture’ (yes, the same one Delhi wants to reform) and Indian cities are more international and foreigner-friendly than China. In fact, they want Beijing to do a Delhi.