civilized departures

The other day saw two friends off to Xiamen. I had been expecting crowds and unpleasant jostling, but instead found the bus station well organized and people departing without problem. Apparently, the Shenzhen version of the national “Civilized departure, peaceful spring movement (文明出行,平安春运)” campaign is going well.

To put Shenzhen’s estimated 10 million arrivals and departures in perspective, Guangdong province’s estimated spring movement is 141 million trips from Jan 19 to Feb 27. Halving that total means an estimated 75.5 million people will be moving in and around Guangdong.

Once again, I don’t know how to imagine this scale of movement. I don’t even know how one would go about counting heads. I think that numbers this large (75.5 million is 1/2 the population of Russia; Shenzhen’s measly 10 million halves to five million or more than the population of Houston) must be of world significance, but offhand I’m not sure exactly what that significance is.

All this to say that at many levels, the scale of the transformation I am witnessing from my perch in Shenzhen confounds me. I grew up thinking about population in terms of thousands; even NYC had less than 10 million when I was a young’un. I note increasing traffic jams, insufficient places for high school students, and the radical restructuring of Shenzhen Bay and associate it with increased stress, growing inequality, and environmental degradation. But. What does it mean if we do not choose to live otherwise?

Today, a friend and I spoke about what an intervention might look like. She said that according to Chinese understanding, the best time to intervene is when a mistake happens, branding the event into the person’s mind. “For example,” she offered, “the other day I was trying to get on the bus carrying my camera and supplies. I asked two teenager girls to let me through. I was trying to be polite because I didn’t want to bash them with my equipment. But one of them sniffed and said, ‘I’m not fat.’ Strange. She thought me asking her to move meant I thought she was fat. At the time I wanted to say something, but then thought, forget it. Let her learn from society.”

“So we intervene one by one?” I asked.

She sighed and explained, “If more people were well-intentioned, it would be a beautiful world.”

In fact, one by one is how we do it. And maybe the point isn’t to finish, but to keep trying.

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