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China pushes public to mind its manners

China cares enormously about how it is perceived by the rest of the world, and the Games have put a spotlight on this country's ancient ideas of shame and superiority. In recent months, officials have launched campaigns aimed at stamping out practices that, while common in China, might be seen as downright unseemly by outsiders: spitting, cutting in line, swearing and littering.
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In the downtown Environmental Sanitation Bureau, 100 public toilet cleaners sat at rapt attention in neat rows, red armbands pinned to the sleeves of their immaculate purple jumpsuits.

The small army of mostly migrant workers who help keep Beijing clean are trained routinely in the mechanics of their jobs. But on this day, a senior lecturer from a government-run institute was driving home a specific point.

"As long as you have come to Beijing, you are a Beijinger," said Zhuang Zeping, urging the toilet cleaners to match their shoes and socks, keep their tools clean and speak softly and politely to strangers. "You represent the image of China to the rest of the world."

Zhuang's guidance was delivered with a certain context in mind: the 2008 Olympic Games, when an estimated 500,000 foreigners are expected to descend on this fast-developing capital for a crucial two-week period.

Concept of not 'losing face'
China cares enormously about how it is perceived by the rest of the world, and the Games have put a spotlight on this country's ancient ideas of shame and superiority, as well as the traditional Chinese concept of not "losing face."

In recent months, officials from the Communist Party have launched campaigns aimed at stamping out practices that, while common in China, might be seen as downright unseemly by outsiders: spitting, cutting in line, swearing and littering.

An anti-spitting sign is posted at a ceremony as volunteers prepare to hand outGuang Niu / X90019

The preparations are a demonstration of how much emphasis Chinese leaders are putting on protocol, but also of the degree to which they consider individual behavior a reflection of the nation at large. The stakes are high. For a century, Chinese have tried to overcome foreign domination and isolation to regain what they see as their country's rightful status as a world leader. For many, August 2008 is their opportunity.

"We want to prove we are making progress," said Sha Lianxiang, a professor of social psychology at Renmin University in Beijing. "On the one hand, we are developing and making progress now, while on the other, we still have lots of problems. How to step out of these problems? We need to consider how people look at us. It's a mirror for us. In a globalized world, we want to be as good as others. We care about other people's reaction."

China's 'coming-out party'
In the run-up to the Games -- called China's "coming-out party" by some commentators here -- officials are preparing to show visitors a sparkling and modern capital with world-class architecture and five-star customer service.

Beijing's municipal government has said it will spend $200 billion to build stadiums and other facilities, upgrade aging infrastructure and improve its tourist industry. That figure doesn't include the vast amounts of money being spent on venues in other Chinese cities or on state-of-the-art training for athletes.

The city, meanwhile, is less eager to be associated with some of its people's traditional habits. Just as unwittingly noisy Americans can offend and the Parisian tendency to allow dogs to defecate anywhere can outrage, Chinese exhibit idiosyncrasies that can seem off-putting. Beijingers spit on sidewalks and chew with open mouths; cabbies engage in protracted nose-picking; and airline passengers jostle one another as soon as their planes touch down.

In the West, a person's behavior would not necessarily be seen as a reflection of a whole nation. But for many Chinese, it's different.

"The honor and shame of an individual is related with that of the nation," Sha said. "This goes back to the time of Confucius, when Chinese were taught to protect the honor of the nation. Society is a complicated network, and we play our roles as members of a collective unit, so this is natural for us."

Civic pride and spitting fines
During the May national holiday, teams of government employees from Beijing's Spiritual Civilization Office, which promotes civility and culture, fanned out across the city in an effort to instill a sense of civic pride.

They lectured people for littering. They handed out fines of up to $7 for spitting in Tiananmen Square and at a railway station. Over seven days, the teams said they gave out 100,000 paper bags for people to spit into, although few Chinese appear to be actually using them.

The Beijing Public Security Bureau has also stepped up to help. Its new training manual indicates phrases that are now banned: "No means no, it doesn't need an explanation," and "We cannot help you with this matter. Go ask whomever you like about it."

On the 11th day of each month, uniformed city employees wave flags, hurry people into orderly lines, or scold them for cutting in line.

"In March, we focused on bus and subway stations. In April, we focused on hospitals," said Zheng Mojie, deputy director general of the Spiritual Civilization office. "We gave flowers to patients standing in line to show our appreciation for their good behavior."

Zheng's office has handed out more than 4 million etiquette books teaching people how to dress, how to answer the phone and, in a seemingly out-of-touch move, how to use a knife and fork when dining with foreign guests.

"Don't honk all the time and don't honk violently," the 109-page book states. "On the phone, greet listeners and tell them who you are with a soft tone and a smile. Don't pick up too slowly, waiting until the phone rings more than three times. Let the caller hang up first."

Some pundits hear a historical echo in the campaign against spitting, littering, swearing and cutting in line. They have labeled the rules the new "Four Harms," a reference to Chairman Mao Zedong's disastrous campaign against rats, flies, mosquitoes and sparrows during the Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s; the economic program wreaked havoc on agriculture and spread famine.

Many cynical about forced etiquette
As with other government campaigns over the years, many Chinese are cynical about the forced etiquette lessons.

An online survey in February by national television network CCTV and a popular Web site showed that "Queuing Days" were not having much of an impact. More than 72 percent of respondents said the measure was ineffective; only 19 percent said it would do any good.

"It's mainly for the Westerners, this campaign," said Liu Xiaobo, a freelance writer and political commentator. "Good manners are cultivated through daily life by the people themselves, not by this kind of large-scale movement. I think government wants to leave a good impression to the world. It's about the face of the government."

Some note that there are reasons behind some of the bad habits here. Many Chinese spit, for example, because they need to clear phlegm in their throats caused partly by horrendous air pollution.

In the end, even the Spiritual Civilization Office admits these things take time.

"Developing the habit of standing in line takes years," Zheng said. "The Olympics is just an opportunity to teach this, but this is not just for the Olympics. We are trying to get the public to be more civilized in the long run. Actually for the Olympics, you don't have to worry. Because Beijingers care so much about face, they will not embarrass the authorities -- they will behave very well."

Researcher Li Jie contributed to this report.