BEIJING – While I waited for my noodles tonight in my favorite restaurant I noticed that I was humming to the music of a Vivienne Westwood fashion show that has been cycling regularly on the Beijing subways lately. Up until a few weeks ago I had never heard of Vivienne Westwood and I didn’t really know much about her until I read her Wikipedia page. This past week the men’s fashion, channeling the 80’s has been looping on the Beijing subways, or at least the lines I’ve been riding.
I’ve been riding the Beijing subway for about a year now, but I still find myself spending a bit of time watching the TV screens while those next to me read on their cell phones or watch movies on their MP4 players. I find it amusing sometimes that in a communist (in name) country like China, the subway tunnels are lit with LED commercials synced to the passing cars and the subways regularly play commercials. While in the capitalist United States, to the limited extent that subways had TVs in New York, they were all talking about the new R160 subway car being quieter and having a new braking system. In a country run by engineers I would more so expect it to be the Chinese subways telling me about the subway braking system.
When I’m either too penned in or two tired to read my Chinese language book I look up to the television monitors, and I’m normally looking for two things. I’m looking for how much of the material is consumerism/play and how much of the information is nanny state, particularly nanny state telling me to protect the environment.
In one ride on the Beijing subway I have probably seen more fashion shows than I had in my life prior to coming to Beijing. In addition to the fashion shows, there are sports games, clips of Mr. Bean and various commercials. Most recently the commercials are for websites that will help you find that special someone or a new Chinese variant of eBay on steroids. I call this the commercial/play aspect of the videos on the Beijing subway. The most interesting videos for me, and for many who ride the subways are the videos with Leon that bridge the gap between play and nanny state.
Leon the green bean, is joined by something pink (see picture), maybe another bean, and occasionally by a rhinosaurus and a chicken. A good number of the videos are slapstick without any clear aim other than perhaps to get a regular following from the subway riders. Its not unusual for me to see passengers sitting across from me laughing or at least smiling, and to see that it corresponds with the Leon video.
A second collection of videos, perhaps two-thirds of the videos have some sort of nanny state message, including ones about litter, making false police reports, and riding public transportation. Quite often, if not always, its Leon that demonstrates what you are not supposed to be doing. Even in the videos that have some sort or citizenship message there is still a bit of slapstick humor, as I suggested before, perhaps as a means to draw in the rider.
Having studied at The New School, I feel like I should be able to draw on Critical Theory to understand the use of the media by the state to guide Chinese citizens in various ways. Unfortunately I didn’t take those Frankfurt School classes. At times the subway message is to be a good consumer, and at other times to be law-abiding citizens who don’t litetr, drive in the wrong lane or make false police reports.
Yet as I look around the subway cars I ride, aside from moments when its women strutting the catwalk or a few of the Leon episodes, it seems like I am one of the few good citizens watching the subway TVs. I particularly find that I am one of the few people watching the TV screens when it comes to the airing of a series of environmental messages.
Here in Beijing I have seen a good number of advertisements about the national ban on plastic bags enacted in 2008, along with videos on the merits of compact fluorescent lightbulbs, Beijing’s curbside recycling program and the importance of buying small cars, taking public transportation and not driving during peak times. In addition to the messages on the subway cars, in the subway stations were tools to calculate your carbon footprint and simple steps to reduce your carbon footprint in your daily life painted on the subway glass. Most if not all of these efforts, organized by the Beijing subway.
Here in Beijing the environmental messages on the TVs and in the subway stations are complimented by the traditional propaganda of red banners on overpasses and the community information boards that also encourage living a greener life. The environmentalist and scholar in me wants to know if these messages have any effect. My hunch is that these messages are negligible, often seen for what they are, propaganda from the state. My sense is that if I want to keep humming to Vivienne Westwood fashion shows or laugh to Leon, I can keep watching the TVs, but if I want to understand what it is that gets Chinese to care about environmental issues, I need to keep going to the next stop.