Is “Chinese Street Crossing Style” a character issue?

Recently, a conversation on Sina Weibo and an op-ed in Blog Weekly addressed the question, “Is ‘Chinese street crossing style’ [meaning jay walking] a character issue?” Author Yuan Xiaobin, whose op-ed was published in Blog Weekly, came to the conclusion that, No, pedestrians jay-walking isn’t a character issue, but by limiting the question to pedestrians, commentators are missing the full scope of the problem.

Sure, pedestrians in China often cross the street whenever they like, even on red lights and even when traffic is coming, but so too do automobile run red lights and fail to yield for pedestrians. Bikers and motorcycle drivers don’t even slow down if there’s a red light at a low-traffic intersection. In public places, there is often an every-man-for-himself kind of attitude, exemplified when people entering subway cars don’t wait for passengers to get off and when parents let their children do “small” or “big conveniences” on the street.

Some Chinese bloggers look at this kind of behavior of their fellow citizens and cite a “low character.” The Chinese they use is “素质低” or “素质差.””素质” (su zhi) means “inner quality,” ”basic essence,” “change over time,” according to CC-CEDICT. The word isn’t translated in dictionaries directly as “character,” but it the word “character” is used in colloquial definitions.

Han Han famously raised the question of character in his December 24, 2011 post about democracy, saying that for a democracy to work the public must have high character, otherwise you might end up with a “Rwanda-style democracy.”

Question: You came to the conclusion that Chinese people’s character is too low, that it is not suitable for democracy. Did the government give you a bribe?

Answer: I don’t know where you arrived at that conclusion. I think I am already a regular guy. If democracy isn’t suitable right now, it isn’t suitable. It will come sooner or later. The citizens having a low character won’t prevent democracy from coming, but it will decide what the quality of the democratic governance is. Who wants to have a Rwanda-style democracy?

“Character” or “essence” is an important topic for Chinese discussing their society and public life, thus it came up multiple times in the original discussion about jay-walking and in Yuan Xiaobin’s op-ed, which was originally published in a feature called “The Other Side” at and reprinted in the 31st edition of Blog Weekly, in 2012. It. Here are some excerpts:

“Chinese-style Street Crossing” Isn’t a Character Issue

Recently, some internet users on Weibo said, “Chinese-style street crossing is just gathering enough people together then going, no matter whether it’s a red or green light.” This topic attracted a lot of public clamor and a lot of people expressed the view that this reflects “poor character.”

It’s undeniable that crossing the street on red is an act of bad judgment, but talk of bad character can have a rest.

In the past few years, Chinese car ownership has grown at staggering rates. According to the public safety bureau, as of September 2010, there were 199 million motor vehicles in China, among them 85 million cars, and the number of vehicles increases by 20 million every year.

In order to assure transportation efficiency, in the distribution of rights on the road, from start to finish, it is always biased in favor of motor vehicles; Thus, pedestrians and bikers’ rights are being seriously squeezed.

Citing studies by Nagui Rouphail of North Carolina State University on behavior at traffic lights, Yuan said China’s traffic lights force pedestrians to wait too long.

British scholar N. Rouphail studied people waiting. British people can wait about 45-60 seconds. Because of studies of traffic in Germany that found German people’s limit is 60 seconds, thus German traffic lights do not last longer than 60 seconds.

Chinese people’s patience is obviously greater. Tongji University conducted studies in Hangzhou, and found that Hangzhou pedestrians could wait for the light to change for 70-90 seconds. But many lights in China last longer than 90 seconds: In Hangzhou, lights often last longer than 100 seconds. The longest was 145 seconds. In Shanghai, lights can be longer than 120 seconds, even up to 180 seconds.

Furthermore, a few cars usually try to speed through right after the light changes. Cars turning right will turn right on red in a continuous line and try to outflank pedestrians rather than yield. Cars turning left on green will try to thread themselves through lines of pedestrians.

Yuan cited pedestrians’ lack of rights on the road as the main reason people jay-walk, not character.

Whether it is the public or the media, people are all conditioned to blame it on “the character is low, ethics are slipping.” This kind of argument might have a little bit of reason, but to just blame it all on character isn’t fair.

Furthermore, Yuan said, foreigners also jay-walk:

In China, you can often see foreigners also do the same “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” kind of thing, not respecting the traffic signals and crossing the street as they please.

In 2010, in Shanghai, a foreigner was reproached by the police for jay-walking, and the video, titled “Shanghai’s Coolest Traffic Cop Angrily Yells at Foreigner in English for Jay-Walking” went viral.

In conclusion, Yuan said that the most important factor is to have a fair, well-organized traffic rules.

There’s a saying, “Whether culture is high or low is determined by weather systems are good or bad.” A good system won’t definitively guarantee that people act with high character, but it is a precondition for people to act in high character.

The discussion of crossing the street caused a lot of discussion on Sina Weibo.


  1. 素质 truly is one hard concept to translate.
    “Inner essence” gets the meaning but hardly any word to my knowledge can describe it well enough.

  2. I don’t think jaywalking can be attributed to a character flaw. I know patience is a virtue, but no one likes to wait.

    I live in Shenzhen, China, and jaywalking is no big deal to me. First of all, I’d say that I (an American) do it more than most Chinese people, so maybe I’m the one with “low character.” The fact is that even when the “walk” signal is green, you’re just as likely to get hit by some maniac in a dump truck (or a scooter if you’re lucky). And even once you’re safely across the street you need to stay vigilant – people here drive on the sidewalk like its no big deal.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. I love China, and little adventures like crossing the street are exactly why I’m living here!

    1. Part of the problem is that urban planning in many cities is so flawed that behaving like an actual civilized person is made near to impossible on the long term.
      And I’m not even mentionning the drivers’ attitude since you just did it yourself just well.
      Signs are planted like they’re mere decorations without the slighest care for any actual purpose.

      Zhujiang New Town, so called supermodern financial district of Guangzhou is the perfect example. Whole district isn’t even 3 years old and already pavements are going bad-luck-sinkholes, half of traffic lights are regularly down when they ever worked at all and you can sometimes walk hundreds of meters before meeting the first crosswalk that might give you a fighting chance vs drunk truck drivers…

  3. Unlike blacks who just do it and no drivers dare to hit them blackass jaywalkers with their VIP clean cars.

  4. Jaywalking is a character issue once somebody gets hurt. In big cities, people are always on the move and you have to expect people to be trying to get from point A to point B as fast as possible.

    Line cutting is definitely a character issue in China. Won’t go as far as to say jaywalking is.

    Suspect that one bad jaywalker could influence an entire group of “good people” to cross a street in with heavy traffic. This would be an interesting study.

  5. Jaywalking should not be considered a character issue because it is not something rude. It could be dangerous though, because you run the risk of getting hit by a car.

    Cutting queue, and not waiting for passengers to alight before getting on are character issues because it is an act of rudeness to others. Honking and tailgating are character issues because it is an act of rudeness, whereas running stop signs and red lights are not. It’s very dangerous though. If you want to see an example of people with character issues, ask for direction or help in Hong Kong.

    Urinating and defecating in the public is not a character issue for the same reason that jaywalking is not. It may look gross and take some time to clean, but it is far less gross than being inside a public toilet or cleaning one. Ask yourself, “would you rather clean up urine and s*** from the edge of a public toilet or from the sidewalk?” It would be rude to force people to use dirty public toilets by criminalising public urination and defecation. Yes, countries with too many overly self-righteous legalists like the USA do criminalise such harmless acts, even if it’s done while hiding in a bush. You can get a misdemeanor conviction permanently branded into your criminal record for comitting this “serious” crime in the USA.

    As an act of courtesy in China, if you’re going to urinate or defecate in the public, try to find some place where not a lot of people will pass by regularly.

    1. “urinate or defecate in the public”

      We do that on the streets all the time here in Canada, you see the thing is we ain’t got any clean or dirty public toilets here, only Mac Donald’s.

      But you gotta buy something first.

  6. I really like the dear information you offer in your articles. I’m able to bookmark your site and show the kids check out up here generally. Im fairly positive theyre likely to be informed a great deal of new stuff here than anyone

  7. It happens in every country. Not only China. No one has patience in today’s world. But if there are strict rules we can see lots of improvement. It is my opinion. Thanks For sharing this article.

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