Welcome to Tea Time Chat, a real-time discussion between Tea Leaf Nation writers about the issues that matter to them.
Tourism season is approaching in many parts of the world, so we asked our contributors their thoughts on a recent assertion by Chinese politician Wang Yang that the ‘uncivilized’ behavior of Chinese tourists abroad was damaging the country’s reputation.
There’s no excuse for spitting, urinating and littering in public places, but some Chinese tourists’ “uncivilized” manners deserve more understanding.
First, due to China’s low per capita income level and foreign countries’ rigid visa policies towards Chinese citizens, for many Chinese, an overseas trip is still a once-in-a-lifetime luxury.
A journey to European countries or the U.S. can easily cost a middle-income Chinese person from a big city like Beijing or Shanghai at least four months’ wages. Additionally, a Chinese person has to go through a very selective visa application review and visa interview process, which most citizens from “civilized countries” could never imagine. People usually don’t spend fortunes and endure bureaucracy just to behave themselves or be “civilized.” It’s more Spring Break than it is a museum visit.
Second, Chinese travel in groups. There is a language barrier, and tourist guides are needed; however, another major reason for group travel is, again, the visa policies: many developed countries don’t accept individual tourist visa applications from Chinese. The Chinese have to be bundled together and vouched for by a qualified travel agency in order to obtain a visa.
When people travel in groups, the code of behavior of the origin country can be observed within the social perimeter created by the group. It lowers the cultural pressure from an unfamiliar environment and lessens the travelers’ interactions with the destination society, much like an Africa safari in a packed bus instead of a solo excursion.
Lastly, cultural differences create awkwardness. Western eating utensil etiquette is perplexing to chopstick users. Ordering from Italian or French menus is like deciphering the Rosetta Stone for many Chinese. Table manners and dress codes are always intimidating to inexperienced travelers. Think of the knives, folks, and awfully translated Chinese menus presented by friendly Chinese to foreign tourists, instead of shaming someone who is “uncivilized” condescendingly.
Let’s make a few clarifications, here.
Wang Yang’s assertion that Chinese mannerisms, like speaking loudly (a hallmark of tonal Mandarin), will “damage the image of the Chinese people” is an overreach. Quietly, he is echoing President Xi Jinping’s lofty hopes for the “Chinese Dream” or what Xinhua described as the “renewal of the Chinese nation” à la polished, “professional competence” worthy of international envy.
To the claims of coarse behavior by tourists from the Mainland: The slurping of noodles (slurping’s a hat-tip to the cook) didn’t cause hoteliers in the Maldives to yank tea kettles from bedrooms in a fit of bigotry. No, the hospitality industry guns only for one color—green; for a buck, tourism bureaus happily overlook personal habits different from their own. But wreck something of value with the stickiness of boiled ramen? Or, litter a restaurant floor with spit-out duck bones?
Hardly tinged with racial overtones, these kinds of actions instead challenge overseas property and public health laws.
So, in a roundabout way, Wang’s call to “consciously obey social and public order and social morality” abroad hit the mark.
Christopher Magoon is a Philadelphia-based writer and graduate student who has lived in Yunnan and Beijing.
Last week, a Chinese deputy foreign minister named Wang Yang made headlines by criticizing Chinese tourists’ “uncivilized behavior” while traveling abroad saying, “It damages the image of the Chinese people and has a very bad impact.”
This was not a gaff, nor was it a fringe official gone rogue—Wang’s remarks appear to have the backing of the Chinese state. Wang is a seasoned politician who made a slow-and-steady climb through the party ranks to Guangdong Party Secretary before being named one of China’s four deputy foreign ministers. His remarks came during a teleconference on a new set of tourism laws, hosted by the tightlipped Chinese State Council. Rather than censoring Wang’s critique,state-controlled media published his urgings for more polite tourist behavior.
While notable for their intensity, Wang’s comments were not the first state-sponsored critique of Chinese tourists. In 2006, Chinese media announced new regulations that made “travel agencies and tour guides responsible for Chinese tourists who are rude, dirty or generally behave badly in public.”
Wang’s remarks come in the wake of an explosion of Chinese international travel that has amplified the profile of Chinese tourists in host nations. In 2012, China became the most important international tourism market in the world, passing both the United States and Germany in dollars spent abroad. Western readers will not be surprised to learn of a backlash against spitting, line cutting, and loud talking in the U.S. and Europe, but many of the loudest complaints come from China’s Asian neighbors. Recent reports from Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, and South Korea all voice complaints of the increasing flow of “rude” Chinese tourists.
Though somewhat bizarre, Wang’s remarks were a calculated response to a small—but growing—thorn in the side of a country that is desperately trying to improve its international profile.