f (or when) a disaster should ever befall Beijing, I will be the only survivor. I know this because I am the only person who ever watches the public service announcements (PSA) on the Beijing subway. You could say it’s in an effort to avoid permanently causing my neck vertebrae from being bent by hunching over my smartphone screen, as everyone else does on their long, tedious commutes across the city. Watching the screens which play these PSAs on a loop at least means you have to look up. But I also find them genuinely fascinating, and sometimes slightly alarming.
While these kinds of PSAs are generally relegated to late-night slots on public TV channels in other countries, here they are screened in public all the time.
There are several categories. Exhortations on how to be a good citizen. Some involve safety warnings and disaster prevention. Some just like to advertise China. Others give information about the workings of the country’s legal and security apparatus. These last are a bit boring, compared to the others. Not even the addition of a cartoon gavel can help make videos about the different levels of the court system interesting.
My favourites are the ones on how to survive a disaster. They often involve cartoon animals. Lately, there have been ones warning how to avoid being drowned in a sudden rainstorm. Now Beijing is a very dry city. It almost never rains, except in the summer months, when there can be extremely violent storms, accompanied by flash floods. I once foolishly cycled home from work late at night in a storm, despite the exhortations of my colleagues. But you can never get a cab in the rain (not even when it’s just drizzling), so off I set, only to find myself cycling through water that came over the pedals. If only I had watched the PSAs about how to behave in a rainstorm first.
In these ones, a cat and a dog are trying to get to a restaurant for a roast chicken dinner. The sensible dog points out they should not park on top of the storm drain. The flighty cat (stereotypes, much?) glibly waves off the danger. Soon the street is flooded, water flows into the restaurant, and the chicken dinner is ruined. On the way home, the cat insists on driving through a flooded underpass, to the dog’s alarm, only to find themselves stuck. They are just rescued in the nick of time. I should add, though this is a real danger – in a catastrophic flash flood in 2012, people did get stuck in exactly that situation.
Cartoons are often deployed to get the safety message across. A safety PSA on public transportation played on the subway for much of last year. I was never sure if it was warning about sex pests or crazy attackers, but I was quite alarmed the first time I saw it. The incident occurred on a bus when a woman was bothered by a man. She approaches the driver for help. The attack then escalates, the assailant producing a knife. He is eventually subdued by fellow passengers. This is shown in actual CCTV footage of the incident. Then, as if that is not enough, there is an animated repeat of the crime. Not being able to read the accompanying Chinese characters quickly enough, I can’t really tell what the lesson is.
Another unnecessarily graphic PSA came on a long-distance bus ride in western China. I’m glad that now all buses are equipped with seat belts, and if told, I will use it. But just to hammer the message home, the bus played, on a loop, actual footage of bus crashes in which people were about to be hurled out of the window. Then a cartoon version with cute animals of what we had just seen just to ram the point home. Seat belts were worn.
Many of the PSAs are trying to persuade the populace of the virtues of civilized behavior. Behaving well when driving or walking on the street is a popular topic. Cartoons show polite children helping escort seniors across the street at a crosswalk where all the drivers stop while you cross. A lady helps a driver who mistakenly parks across two spaces. The driver is happy to move. People wait for the red light to cross the street.
It is a utopia. But it is one in which no one will ever live, because only I ever watch the aspirational videos to know what this litter-free society, one in which drivers are unerringly polite, in which everyone lets the people off the train before getting on and gives up their seat for an elderly or disabled person, will ever look like.
Except one friend of mine, who told me that she too, likes to watch them. Come the apocalypse, it will be just the two of us, behaving very politely.