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China Changes Coarse

The government has set itself a monumental task ahead of the 2008 Olympics: teaching the nation's 1 billion people how to be polite.

September 17, 2005|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — Even Miss Manners might blanch at the task at hand: charm school for a billion people, a good number of them convinced that life means never having to say you're sorry, excuse me or thank you.

This is no tutorial on fish forks. In advance of the 2008 Olympics, the government has embarked on a crash campaign to instill manners in the world's most populous country. The effort has left government planners struggling to break some deeply entrenched habits, including public spitting and urinating, driving that evokes a "Road Warrior" set, and an inordinate fondness for cutting in line.

"I think they're already too late for the Olympics," said Zhu Wei, manager of the Shanghai Boni Housekeeping Service, a maid-referral agency that uses British butlers to train its staff. "They should have started 20 years ago."

China hardly has a monopoly on rude behavior. And many give Beijing major kudos for tackling the problem.

"Some people's manners in China are atrocious, but you have to start somewhere," said Yue-sai Kan, author of "Etiquette for the Modern Chinese." "I think it's great what the government is doing. I wish the New York City government would do this."

Among various initiatives in manners are televised courses, slogans, billboards and local contests.

China's politeness push may be more challenging than elsewhere, however, in part because of the country's history. After the communists took power in 1949, etiquette wasn't just pushed aside, it was often actively rooted out, sociologists say. That was particularly true during the chaotic 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, when refinement was condemned as a ruling-class plot to inhibit people and keep them down.

Now China finds itself playing catch-up as it realizes that commanding global respect means more than just churning out widgets and building five-star hotels.

"Most Chinese are very confident about the hardware for the 2008 Olympics," said Ge Chenhong, a People's University professor and government advisor. "But it takes much longer to improve the software, especially the quality of people's behavior, and that's a problem."

In a country where mass campaigns, stage-managed party congresses and pageantry remain important, leaders are hoping to avoid embarrassing scenes at the Olympics.

In April, referees repeatedly chided fans at a world snooker tournament here for their lack of manners, noisy outbursts and jangling cellphones. "Bad behavior left unchecked at one sports event can grow like a cancer and destroy an entire Olympics," the government-run China Daily newspaper warned the following day.

Then, in July, in what the state press dubbed a "night of shame," the crowd at a basketball game went ballistic, throwing objects and launching insults after a Chinese player was fouled during a match with Puerto Rico.

Although the Olympics is a major manners motivator, it's not the only one. Better behavior promises to reduce friction in a society where corruption, growing income disparity and land appropriation make for an increasingly explosive mix.

"Manners are essential for interpersonal communication," said Li Lulu, dean of the sociology department at People's University. "Without rules, everyone gets hurt."

China is sparing no effort in the charm offensive. Daily TV talk shows, dramas and prime-time mini-spots provide lessons nationwide on everything from public fighting to the proper use of cellphones.

Universities hold etiquette contests, slogans on village walls urge farmers to create a civilized society, and neighborhoods take part in "courteous community" competitions.

By the end of the year, "the bad habits of local citizens will be eradicated," the China Daily declared optimistically in outlining Shanghai's six-year "Be a Lovable Shanghainese" campaign.

Topping the list of pet peeves in many local surveys is spitting, which not even a campaign linking it to SARS could stop. In fact, some Chinese say it improves your constitution.

Asked mid-spit for his view of the government's politeness campaign, a resident of Beijing's Shijingshan district swore, then yelled, "It's none of your business!" before stomping off.

Other targets of the various campaigns include aggressive jostling, men who lounge half-naked in public, cooking on the street, cutting in line and urinating in public.

"The etiquette of food is another big area," deportment expert Kan said. "Eating loudly, not knowing what a napkin is for, throwing bones on the table or floor. But anyone who's seen things over the past 20 years knows it used to be way worse."

It also used to be much better. Historians note that China -- a nation that perfected the subtleties of good taste and behavior thousands of years ago -- now finds itself lagging. Some attribute this to poverty, limited education and the eradication of an upper class, the traditional champion of good manners.

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