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Changing China: good try, but no sale

January 07, 2007|GREGORY RODRIGUEZ

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 behavior."

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 manner."

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 quite another.

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 in mind.


GREGORY RODRIGUEZ is an Irvine senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

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