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Service with a smile -- it's the law

Beijing wants residents -- especially the city's shopkeepers -- to take a polite pill before the 2008 Olympics.

January 02, 2007|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — Take heed, rude Beijingers: Mind your manners, or someone else will.

Apparently frustrated by its limited success in persuading Beijing residents to stop spitting, act more courteously and show a friendlier face to strangers in preparation for the 2008 Olympics, the Beijing municipal government has opted for a more top-down approach.

Starting next month, Beijing shopkeepers who vent their anger, act impatiently, glance at customers disdainfully or act absent-mindedly are in violation of the law. Also forbidden under the draft regulations are sarcastic or ironic comments, vague explanations and grabbing customers to coerce them into buying something, according to a report released on a state media website last month.

As the capital of the Middle Kingdom prepares to play host to the world in a little less than two years, it's hoping law will trump centuries of culture.

"The ancient capital has produced residents with a reputation for generosity and big gestures, but it's also fostered a tradition of arrogance in Beijingers reflected in the commercial and service industry," the China News Service reported. "Complaints of bad service in Beijing are all over the Internet."

Song Xuelei, a 27-year-old student, said he applauded the idea. His pet peeve is getting dirty looks from shopkeepers when he's only window shopping.

But enforcing the new rules, which take effect Feb. 1, could be a bit difficult. "People get emotional," Song said. "Maybe the shopkeeper had a bad day. It's a bit hard to control. And I don't really think this is the government's business. We just need to change people's behavior over time."

Ivy Li, 30, an advertising executive carrying a shopping bag on a recent day, sees little need. "I've never met a rude salesclerk in Beijing," she said, expressing a view not widely shared.

In Internet chat rooms, comments appeared to be running roughly 90% against the new regulations.

"This is ridiculous," said an anonymous posting on Sina.com, one of China's largest Web portals. "No matter what rules you pass, Beijingers remain Beijingers."

The government report makes no mention of penalties, leading to speculation about how the regulations will be enforced. What will a consumer need to prove that he or she was wronged? Will a cellphone video clip become the supporting evidence of choice?

The real problem, some Internet users said, is state-owned stores with their lazy workers -- an illustration of how quickly ordinary complaints in China these days can morph into criticism of the government, especially in large cities.

"All stores should be private," one posting said. "Then maybe consumers would be treated like gods!"

As with the Soviet bloc, bad service was a Beijing fixture during decades of central planning. However, greater competition and an expanded private economy have put a new spin on the Communist Party's "Serve the People" mantra.

"In the old days, many consumers used to keep quiet even if they weren't satisfied," said Victor Yuan, chairman of Beijing-based Horizon Research Consultancy Group, which does polling for the private sector and the party. "Increasingly, people feel they have the right to complain and demand better service."

Zheng Haihang, vice president of Capital University of Economics and Business, told the China News Service that Beijing had modernized faster than many other parts of the country because of its status as the capital. But the deeply embedded ye, or master, culture formed by centuries of being the seat of imperial and communist power now threatens to derail modernization and work against a service mentality.

Li Hui, 26, a shopkeeper at the Wuan musical instrument store in Beijing, welcomed the sentiment behind the new regulations. When she goes shopping, the Guangzhou native said, she is often frustrated by clerks who ignore her as they gossip among themselves or chat on their cellphones.

But it's a two-way street, she added. Beijing also has lots of rude customers, including those who come into her shop, bang loudly on the drums, damage her expensive violins and agree to prices after lengthy bargaining, only to walk away.

"I think they should also pass a law against rude customers," she said. "That might help as well. It's a mutual problem."

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mark.magnier@latimes.com

Yin Lijin of The Times' Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.

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