A new report about a brawl on Metro Line 3 is casting a spotlight on the ongoing drama involving subway beggars, featuring a colorful but also unruly cast of men, women, children and even babies who spend their days pandering for money beneath the streets of Shanghai. I have some thoughts about how to tackle the problem, though there really are no quick and easy answers. Such subway beggars are far fewer in the US cities, and don’t exist at all in other major Asian cities like Hong Kong, Taipei and Singapore.
I have to start off any discussion on this issue by sympathizing with the city for the wide array of problems it faces in policing its state-of-the-art but often overcrowded and sometimes unruly subway system. In addition to beggars, subway workers must deal everyday with large number of fare jumpers, passengers who try to bring dangerous materials onto trains, and even people who try to walk along the tracks.
The mix of rascals includes an eclectic hodgepodge of beggars, ranging from musicians, karaoke singers and baby-carrying mothers to handicapped and disfigured people missing limbs and covered with scars. Such a cast of characters is far more colorful than in the US, where the occasional subway beggar doesn’t come with any special props and simply walks up and down the train aisles asking for money.
Shanghai’s latest subway confrontation began when a passenger on Line 3 tried to stop a woman from begging in the car. When the beggar refused, an argument broke out that quickly turned into a fight. Some other passengers tried to stop the beggar from attacking the passenger. Another began recording the incident on a cellphone, prompting one of the beggar’s cohorts to try to snatch the handset.
All of this sounds like a bizarre comedy, except for the fact that it’s true. Such altercations seem quite common these days on the subway, not only involving beggars. Several months ago another passenger was attacked after asking some parents not to let their child urinate inside the car. And during a broader crackdown last year, many fare jumpers became outraged and attacked the subway employees who caught them.
The presence of so much conflict in the subway is probably a direct result of so many migrants in Shanghai, many of whom can’t find regular jobs and are must resort to less conventional means to earn a living. Some cases like the urinating child also arise from ignorance, since many of these migrants may simply not realize it’s improper to urinate in public places like subways in big cities like Shanghai.
But let’s return to the beggars, as that problem really does seem to be getting worse these days. Personally speaking, I have little or no sympathy for most of these people, who seem more like actors than people who are really desperate and poverty stricken.
I’ve heard that many of women who walk through the cars with babies on their backs or boys or girls holding their hands aren’t even the real mothers of those children, and that those children are sometimes kidnapped from their hometowns and bought to big cities to work as props for their abductors. Many of the disfigured people also seem like actors from circuses in a previous era, and even the karaoke singers are offering a strange kind of performance as they walk through the cars while singing over their portable sound systems.
I did some online research, and discovered reports saying that some of these people can earn up to 10,000 yuan per month. The reports say police have tried a number of tactics to clean up the problem, including trying to shame the worst offenders by publicly naming them on a government microblog. I was also somewhat surprised to read that some people actually criticized the tactic as unfair treatment of a disadvantaged group.
All of that brings me back to my original question of better ways the city might manage the problem, which is annoying for passengers and can even be dangerous as we saw with the latest conflict. I personally think the public shaming is a good idea, and could also be used for other subway scoundrels like fare jumpers. After all, these beggars are all engaged in illegal behavior, and I don’t see why the worst offenders shouldn’t lose their right to privacy when they repeat the same crime again and again.
But as with many things in China, I do think education is probably a better long-term solution, not only aimed at offenders but also at passengers. Migrants to Shanghai need to learn about the norms of city behavior, not only from posters and ad campaigns but by observing proper behavior among Shanghai residents who sometimes also act badly in public.
More fundamentally, subway riders also need to be educated to stop giving money to these beggars. After all, begging is very market-oriented. If a beggar discovers that no one is giving him money, he will probably quit and look for other ways to make a living. Perhaps more TV news stories about how many of these actors are fakes, and a publicity campaign encouraging people to ignore them could help to clean up a problem. At the end of the day, these people are not only a nuisance but also a blemish on Shanghai as it tries to emerge as a major international city.