[CHINA] Obsession with Manners
- China's new obsession with manners
Officials want to spruce up Chinese manners for the 2008 Olympics,
but a heavy-handed etiquette law is absurd.
BEIJING'S NEW LAW criminalizing bad customer service sounds humorous
at first. It's fun to imagine calling the cops on a snooty shoe
salesman at the Westside Pavilion.
But as funny as it sounds, the new law which makes it illegal for
Beijing sales clerks to be rude to their customers is no joke. It
not only exposes the bizarre contradictions of China's brand of
authoritarian capitalism, it makes the West's policy of reforming the
world's most populous nation through engagement look positively silly.
Fourteen years ago, Beijing was denied the 2000 Olympics largely
because the memory of the Tiananmen Square massacre was too fresh.
But by 2001, Olympic organizers figured that awarding the Games to
Beijing in '08 was less an international stamp of approval than it
was a challenge to China to clean up its act.
The logic was simple: Exposure to the world including tens of
thousands of foreign journalists was a greater incentive for China
to honor international human rights conventions than was yet another
rejection at the hands of the International Olympic Committee.
In theory, that wasn't a bad idea. Despite the complexities of
geopolitics, it is astonishing how insecure a nation's leaders can
become in the face of hordes of foreign tourists and reporters. Last
year, before the start of the World Cup, many German officials and
pundits were deathly afraid that their countrymen would be less than
gracious hosts to millions of visiting soccer fans. Their worries, it
turns out, were unfounded. But if you've ever been to Beijing, you
might understand why Chinese officials have become obsessed with
their countrymen's manners.
Two decades ago, writer Bo Yang, who has been described as a Chinese
Voltaire, was pilloried on the mainland for writing an essay
titled "The Ugly Chinaman," in which he excoriated his countrymen for
being, among other things, too loud and too crass. That officials in
Beijing are now in open agreement with Yang is a sign that some
things have changed.
Beijing officials are not just targeting shopkeepers; they have
launched a massive public service campaign to encourage capital
dwellers to be more friendly and outgoing, as well as to curtail such
behaviors as littering, spitting in public and cutting in lines.
Etiquette books have been distributed. New cab drivers are taking
courses in basic English and politeness.
And to spread the love, officials have also begun to target the
growing number of Chinese tourists who travel abroad. The Spiritual
Civilizational Steering Committee of the Communist Party yes, it's
actually called that is on the verge of publishing a handy guide
that will, according to a government newspaper, ensure that the
behavior of Chinese tourists is "compatible with the nation's
economic strength and its growing international status."
But given China's history of outrageous social engineering campaigns,
it's not surprising that the current drive is falling on deaf
ears. "I think people are numb to government campaigns," said Beijing
resident Lu-Chin Mischke.
Two years ago, Mischke founded the Pride Institute, which is
dedicated to raising the level of etiquette of the Chinese public.
Mischke, who married an American and has lived abroad, takes a
different tack than the government. She appeals to individual rather
than national pride and in her small way hopes to create an
environment of "positive peer pressure" that will limit "antisocial
To that end, she has printed up six cards that are handed out to
Beijing residents. The cards encourage certain behavior, such as
making eye contact when greeting people and establishing "a caring
But for all her missionary zeal, Mischke is pessimistic about her
odds of success in the short run. As the Beijing government must be.
Encouraging polite behavior is one thing, criminalizing rudeness is
Gordon G. Chang, the author of "The Coming Collapse of China," says
the shopkeeper law, which goes into effect next month, is proof that
the Olympics will not democratize China in the way some had hoped.
Although he concedes that there has been some progress such as
agreeing to temporarily relax restrictions on foreign reporters he
thinks the new law, no matter how unevenly applied, just goes to show
how comfortable the Chinese government is in extending a heavy hand
when it needs to. And in the end, that may bother well-intentioned
Westerners more than it does any Beijing shoe salesman.
The truth is that China's ability to blend capitalism and
authoritarianism flies in the face of many cherished Western notions.
Not only are we convinced that economic liberalization goes hand in
hand with democratization, our engagement policy is premised on the
false notion that once nations get to know us, they will happily
choose to be like us.
Yes, Chinese officials want to impress the world at the 2008
Olympics. But enacting an absurd, heavy-handed law to improve
etiquette wasn't the kind of sprucing up that Western optimists had