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Anti-pollution efforts in Chinese city are too effective for city to afford

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• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

The difficulties of ruling China are often encapsulated in popular sayings. “The emperor is far away and the mountains are high,” for example, has long explained why government policy isn’t always enforced.

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One ancient proverb has just found new life in the central city of Xianyang, whose residents are proving that “policies from the top always meet counter-policies from the bottom.”

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The city government, aiming to win a “National Clean City” award, last month started offering citizens 5 fen (a little less than a US cent) for each cigarette butt they picked up from the street. So successful was the campaign that the streets were soon unsullied by cigarette ends. But butts keep pouring into the district sanitation bureau – more than 7 million so far, according to the Xi’an Daily, a regional government paper.

Nobody can really tell where all this litter is coming from. Some people seem to be emptying ashtrays in Internet cafes, or sorting through trash cans.

The rewards are currently set to cost Xianyang more than $50,000 – a great deal of money in provincial China – and some collection centers are now demanding testimony from municipal street sweepers to confirm that the butts really came from the sidewalk.

As the Chinese saying goes, “You can have a thousand bright ideas, but I always have my old strategy.”