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Why the Chinese are Taking to the Streets

The lack of public sport facilities and sites have seen a growing number of urban residents take to public roads for exercise

By Wang Shan Updated Oct.29

Xu Guilin has been restless and anxious of late. As the head of the Outdoor Sport Association of Lanshan District in the city of Linyi, Shandong Province, he’s used to organizing hikes and walks in an urban landscape increasingly hostile to pedestrians. But now he’s facing a media blitz after tragedy struck his group – while also handling members who are keen to take to the roads again.  

In the early morning of July 8, 2017, a taxi rammed into a crowd of walkers on the highway in the city, killing one and injuring two. After the accident, more than 20 teams of walkers were told to halt their activities.  

“I am under mounting pressure,” Xu told NewsChina. He doesn’t know how to cope with his thousands of members. “They want to exercise and walk, where could they go?” He’s very worried that some walkers will strike off on their own, risking another accident, and he’s facing massive criticism online where netizens flocked to condemn walkers for their alleged intrusion onto public roads.  

There are 41 volunteer walking groups in Linyi, each with 100 to 400 members. But there’s little space to walk in the crowded city of over 10 million people. Four fifths of participants are aged between 40 and 50. “These people are the breadwinners of their families, a squeezed generation who have to take care of their parents as well as their kids. They need a healthy body to support their families and walking is the most inexpensive and convenient way to stay fit for them,” said 49-year-old Xu, adding that he understood very well this way of thinking.  

Xu told every group to stop after the accident, but others are gathering to walk in secret. Traffic police in Linyi had to patrol the roads all day long and disperse groups.  

Xu Fang (pseudonym), head of the 41st walking team, told NewsChina that her team had been back on the road once since the prohibition. Her group was established in June 2017, and there are roughly 80 people in it. She was drawn to group walking when they passed her home, joining a growing number of walkers in a troop of her neighborhood.  

“Brisk walking is very good for your health. I used to weigh 85 kilograms, and suffered from hypertension and high cholesterol, but nowadays these diseases are all gone,” she said.   

Xu Fang, 46, said she enjoyed the feeling of walking to the beat in the same uniform as the rest of her team. She also said she had enjoyed the parades and made a lot of new friends in the group. “If any of us had a problem, many people would be ready to help. We were having a positive impact on society.”  

Her walking team used to gather at 7:40pm near a gas station in her neighborhood and then set off at a brisk pace for six kilometers along nearby Taoran Road. “There are few sports facilities in our community and we had no choice but to walk on the road,” she said, adding that to stay safe, team heads are placed at both the front and rear of the team during the journey. “I feel uncomfortable stuck at home nowadays.”  

Taoran Road is the main road that links the local railway station and the airport and their journey had to cross six sets of traffic lights. “We stopped when the light was red and walked when it went green. We observed the traffic regulations and tried not to race drivers.”  

A local taxi driver interviewed by NewsChina, however, gave a different answer. “These walkers marched in procession and when the light turned red, they were not likely to stop and drivers had to wait,” the driver said on condition of anonymity. “They occupied the cycle pathway, driving cyclists onto the main road and conflicts arose.”  

But Xu Fang says her team had little choice, as the sidewalks of other roads fill up with snack stands every evening. “We usually move to the cycle path, that has a speed limit of 50 kilometers, in order to minimize the potential hazard,” Xu Guilin said. He added that they walked on the vehicle road on the day of the accident because many roads in that area were under repair and there were few vehicles in the early morning.  

When Xu Guilin started walking for exercise in 2010, there were only five people in his team. They used to walk along the riverside road as he played music from a handheld stereo. “At that time, it was really speed walking and we were on the road virtually every day,” he said.  

Numbers rapidly boomed, and when the group reached 300, he divided it into two teams. By 2015, that had expanded to 10,000 people. There was no membership fee, save for 85 yuan (US$13) for a uniform. Whenever he set up a new team, they got a special flag and name of their own, and Xu would personally check the route for safety.  

Public Sphere 
As the pace of life in Chinese cities has quickened and the number of private cars exploded, it’s become increasingly hard to exercise regularly, and public fitness has declined sharply. The World Health Organization says lack of exercise is the fourth biggest factor contributing to mortality worldwide, and China is making up a lot of those numbers. Health-conscious Chinese have become a powerful force in the cities, though. According to a 2014 survey, walking and running are the most popular exercise activities for those over 20 – and at 54.6 percent, walking is the top by far, compared to just 12.4 percent who run.  

But public exercise also often causes public inconvenience. There have been frequent complaints over the plague of dama, middle-aged women who dance in large groups in public squares and other spots. Huang Shunjiang, a researcher at the Institute for Urban and Environmental Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, blames this and the intrusion on the roads on the lack of public facilities and infrastructure to meet the growing demand for exercise.  

Official statistics showed that for every 100,000 people in China, there are only 65.8 sport fields. In Japan and Europe, however, the number is more than 200. At the end of 2010, each person in China had just 1.2 square meters of sporting space available. “It’s because urban planning is still in the early stages,” Huang said. China’s residential communities were mostly built between the 1970 and the 1990s, when volume mattered most and sport facilities were an afterthought at best. Since the private real estate boom of the 1990s, though, athletic facilities such as gyms have received more attention.  

Yet even though the government required real estate developers to construct sport facilities within communities, the scarcity of urban land resources, coupled with rocketing housing prices, has meant they’re often cut in order to increase profits. “They’re more decorations to boost sales than anything else,” Huang said.  

For example, among all the 165 residential communities built in the city of Guangzhou in southern China’s Guangdong Province from 1998 to 1999, only 23.6 percent met the national standards. In a survey conducted in 2008, 63.5 percent of residential compounds in suburban Beijing had no sport facilities. After 2010, the shortfall of sport facilities in China’s first-tier cities began to be addressed but along with the real estate boom nationwide, shortages began to emerge in many second-and third-tier cities.  

One reason is the lack of financial support from the government. Official statistics showed that expenditure on public sport contributes to only 5.64 percent of national sport funds nationwide, overshadowed by other items including sport events and athletic training. China has often been criticized for its emphasis on Olympic medals and specialized training of a small number of athletes, resulting in a neglect of public health and team sports.  

According to a survey on sport facilities in the city of Linyi by Su Yan, a graduate student at Fujian Normal University, each resident has a sport area of 0.168 square meters in the city, far below the national standard. Meanwhile, sporting areas within residential communities in the city are largely vacant land.  

At dusk, the streets of Linyi are crowded with people. A local resident told our reporter that the public squares have been occupied by dama and taichi practitioners – and didn’t want to challenge them for their space.