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Chinese Are Getting Used to Giving That Extra 10%

Tipping has long been an alien concept in a society where everyone is considered equal. But the practice is gaining currency.

September 04, 2004|Ralph Frammolino | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — In the old China, everyone was taught they were working for the glory of the state. In the new China, the glory has gotten a little more calculating -- say, 10% of the bill.

Tipping, long frowned upon in this still officially communist country, may be going mainstream.

This month, one of China's leading travel agencies will begin offering three VIP tour packages during which customers will be encouraged to tip the guides. The pilot program has touched a nerve in the traditionally gratuity-shy society even as it underscores China's continuing shift to a market-driven economy.

"The practice for many, many years was not to tip," Jane Liedtke, a management consultant who does cross-cultural training for foreign firms here, said about the general treatment of food servers, doormen and other service personnel. "But they are picking up on the Western practice of tipping here quite vigorously."

That attitude represents a cultural sea-change in a place where tipping was unheard of under early communism, which taught that everyone was equal. Even before communism, expecting a tip was considered rude.

As a result, most people continue to pocket their spare change, rather than leave it on the restaurant table or give it to the cabby. And in the $7-billion-a-year tour business, which is rebounding from hard times after the SARS outbreak last year, gratuities remain a touchy subject.

It is against government regulations for tour guides to solicit gratuities, either directly or indirectly, and they risk getting points assessed against their licenses if they are caught, say those in the industry.

But tour companies, guides and drivers are notorious here for lining their pockets by shepherding their clients to malls and souvenir shops in return for a 10% to 15% commission on the sales.

The payments sometimes amount to hundreds of dollars a day, more than the guides receive in salary or bonuses. Some guides even pay tour operators to work for them, hoping to make up their investments from the shopping trips, say insiders.

Guangdong China Travel Service has decided to tiptoe into the tipping tempest by offering special tours to Beijing, the Huangshan, or Yellow Mountain, area in eastern China or Hainan island in the South China Sea in which no shopping trips would be required.

In return, the 20 or so tourists on each excursion are encouraged to give their guides an extra $2.50 a day on packages that range from $241 to $438. The suggestion is printed on the fee schedule.

"You can decide whether the service is good enough," said Wang Jian, associate chief operations officer of the tour company, which based in the southern province of Guangdong. "This actually makes the process more transparent."

Wang said the program, blessed by the government's National Tourism Administration, would be deemed a success if 50% of those who signed up gave tips. The company hopes that the tours, expected to draw mostly Chinese, will change the attitude of customers who think nothing about tipping elsewhere in the world but keep their wallets shut at home, he said.

"When they are abroad, they give tips," Wang said. "Only in China they do not give tips. This is just a matter of habit. We can guide that habit."

The company's business totals $74 million a year, making it the sixth-largest tour company in the country. Initial response to the trial program, which accounts for a tiny portion of the business, has been tepid, Wang said.

"It's just so-so -- not very enthusiastic about this new thing," he said.

The program has also elicited negative responses. The government-controlled China Daily, for instance, questioned the morality of the plan in an editorial page commentary headlined: "For a nice trip, better give a good tip: Not!"

Peking University psychology professor Wang Dengfeng said that, according to Chinese customs, asking for or expecting a tip may be taken as an insult by the customer.

"If you ask for the extra money, it's kind of offensive because the other person will think you're not a good person," said Wang, no relation to the tour firm executive. "You're doing the extra work just for the extra money. It's not polite."

Meanwhile, others say the insult may go the other way. After years of communism, when everyone was supposed to be equal, the notion of giving someone a little extra cash for doing his job might make the recipient feel looked down upon, or easily bought off.

"It's almost like you're going back to feudal times," said Feng Cheng, president of Beijing's Chinese Culture Club, a group that educates expatriates on national customs and history. Others say they don't tip because they assume the restaurant bill or tour fee already includes a service charge.

At ground zero of Chinese tourism -- Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City -- opinions are divided.

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