If you haven’t been to China recently, you haven’t seen its sparkling streets. After a long stint in Shanghai, I recently visited Suzhou and Hong Kong. Suzhou is a 20-minute high speed rail ride from central Shanghai. No potholes. No garbage. No oil stains. I don’t remember even seeing any gum spots. For a city of 10 million, Suzhou is new, clean and spotless, just like most of Shanghai. 

Hong Kong is dirty. My last trip, I rode a bus from the unattractive Cyberport on the south side of Hong Kong Island to the airport. Coming around a turn, I glanced into a park and noticed the litter. Hong Kong streets and sidewalks have the familiar dirt, age and mess of my old homes, Chicago and Los Angeles. Hong Kong Island feels even dirtier since I couldn’t help but juxtapose it with Shanghai’s well-staffed streets and sidewalks. Shanghai is swept clean daily of trash, leaves and fallen cherry blossoms. 

Chicago has worse problems than dirt, pot holes and gum stains. Murder rates continue to make international news. Pension liabilities are crushing the economy. The population continues to drop as young people move away permanently to the western sun and eastern jobs. Entrenched political interests paralyze progress in law, policy, education, infrastructure and employment. Making a priority out of ending gun violence, however, has to be top of Chicago’s agenda. In 2016, four gun murders happened within one block of my apartment in Uptown. One was in the middle of the day when I was within earshot. 

The longstanding solutions among Chicago lefties for gun violence are gun control and the beat cop. Beat cops still exists in some parts of the world but I never saw one in Uptown. With beat cops, police officers walk, on foot, a “beat” of a few city blocks and stop crime before it starts. In the ideal, every neighborhood’s Officer Friendly builds relationships, knows neighborhoods and resolves petty disputes before violence escalates. The British Bobby spinning a night stick while walking London’s Victorian streets is my stereotypical beat cop. But beat cops are rare today. The fact that I have to go back over 100 years to find a popular reference to them signals how unlikely it is that they’ll be walking Uptown anytime soon.  

The economic link between street sweepers in China and beat cops in Chicago is easy. Paying employees to provide a public service by walking a geographic area of a city is too expensive for Chicago. Costs in Shanghai are lower, so Shanghai is loaded with street sweepers. Not only does every street of Shanghai have a human street sweeper, in an amazing fit of sustainable living, thousands of street sweepers build their own brooms with dead tree branches. They look like fanned-out bush branches made from tied bamboo sticks. I don’t speak Mandarin, much less the Shanghaiese spoken by these sweepers. But I see the men and women street sweepers on my daily route to work. I smile, wave and nod.  As I’m coming home at night, I see them sitting and laughing and smoking on corners with other similarly sky blue-uniformed peers.

John Heintz lives in Shanghai, China. He is a writer, teacher, researcher, editor, podcaster, blogger and thinker on the education, economic, legal, justice and social issues facing the global community. Most known for his work in education, John Heintz explores a range of issues in his writing for Second Rail Education.