Sending Beijing to charm school….

I don’t envy the Beijing bureaucrats responsible for prettying up the city’s image in time for the 2008 Olympics. Cleaning up the pollution and adding sparkle to a city that is famously drab is hard enough. But to get the citizens to behave in a more decorous and proper fashion and to drop age-old habits like spitting and hopping lines – now that’s a challenge.

Communist planners are making China’s dowdy, gray capital beautiful for the 2008 Summer Games. Now comes a bigger challenge: Can they make it polite, too?

That might be one hurdle too many, says the woman whose job is to convince Beijingers that common sights here — spitting, swearing, belching and cutting in line — are no way to welcome the world.

“Building the stadiums is no problem,” sighs Zhang Huigang, director of Beijing’s Capital Ethics Development Office. “But raising people’s quality and civilization is not something we can do in one or two months, or even one or two years.”

As the Miss Manners of the Beijing Games, Zhang is racing against time to help China save face. She and her team use daily TV commercials, newspaper cartoons and other tools to try to change the ingrained habits of the host city and the 15 million people living in and around it.

Some of these tools include:

• Instruction in “civilized spitting” and distribution of millions of paper spit bags.

The government’s response highlights one of many cultural differences between East and West: The problem is not spitting per se, but where to spit. “It is unhealthy to swallow spit,” Zhang says, “so we need to help people spit in a civilized way.”

• Trash boxes about every 300 feet on major streets and other public areas to discourage littering, plus requirements that pet owners carry cardboard or plastic poop collectors when walking their dogs.

• Etiquette handbooks to be sent to 2.8 million households, challenging residents to improve their table habits. Examples: no more slurping of soup, no coughing, belching or passing gas at the table — and a reminder to say “excuse me” if you do.

• Roving lecturers to train students, workers and volunteers in Olympic etiquette. Beijing students, already pressed to complete their studies, must take courses in Olympic knowledge.

Soon, the capital will double its new 1,500-person army of “civilized bus-riding” supervisors, laid-off workers hired to stop the crowding and fighting when a bus pulls in.

Good luck, is all I can say. I remember the campaign to stop spitting from five or so years ago, which landed with a plop. Also the campaign to get Beijing men to stop rolling their shirts up in the summer, creating the world’s biggest display of bellies. It went nowhere. I think what they’re trying to do is correct, but changing behavior takes a long time. The campaign has to be ongoing, probably for many years.

This is one of those articles where it’s hard to pick and choose what to copy and paste. Read it all, and let me know if you think Beijing will be prim and proper by 2008.

The Discussion: 29 Comments

Much as it would be nice to see many of these ‘polite’ behaviours become cultural norms, not just in Beijing, but throughout China, couldn’t you argue that they’re trying to impose ‘western’ standards of politeness indiscriminately upon a very eastern civilization. China already has many of its own etiquette norms, focusing more on the way you address people or speak to them. Will western olympic tourists be educated in these? (Btw, did the article mention chewing with your mouth open? Something my friends and most locals seem to do pretty constantly, and one thing that really gets my back up. Guess I should just read it for myself.)

February 9, 2006 @ 2:30 am | Comment

There’s nothing peculiarly “Asian” about spitting. Americans used to do it all the time. At Independence Hall (in Philadelphia), back in 1776, America’s founders all had spittoons near their desks. When they read out the Declaration of Independence, it sounded like this:

“We hold these truths (PTUI!) to be self evident (hrrOCK!) that all me are created equal (PTUI!)…”

That’s right. All men are created equal. All equally revolting.

If we could outgrow that nasty habit, then why can’t they?

February 9, 2006 @ 3:08 am | Comment

Do Chinese people have more phlegm than Westerners? Serious question. They do seem to spit far more frequently.

February 9, 2006 @ 5:37 am | Comment

“spitting, swearing, belching and cutting in line ?are no way to welcome the world.”
Poor Mr.Zhang.
I’m not sure that millions of people walking around with paper spit bags will be less revolting than millions of people spitting on the street. Just a thought. Also, before you can discourage people from cutting in line you must first teach them how to form a line. I can picture it “Bie chadui!” “first we have to paidui!”
As for slurping your soup, what’s wrong with that? If foreign guests don’t like Chinese table manners they can eat at McDonalds (which they will anyway).

February 9, 2006 @ 6:27 am | Comment

Look at the china tourists in ASEAN and around the world, ain’t gonna happen.
Liu Yixi, westerners aren’t the only people that are utterly revolted by the manners of the China nationals.

February 9, 2006 @ 7:07 am | Comment

“Do Chinese people have more phlegm than Westerners? Serious question. They do seem to spit far more frequently.”

The simple answer – YES

Levels of dust, air particulates, smoking, TB, lung and chest infections and an alergy to dairy products (common to many in Asia) DOES mean that Chinese ‘need’ to spit more than westeners, particularly in areas where people use coal or wood to cook or heat their homes.

There are similar prolems in India.

February 9, 2006 @ 9:22 am | Comment

I think that the nuumber one thing, above spitting, above flushing the toilet, even above not picking your teeth at the table, should to QUEING.

The Chinese do not know how to que, it appears to be an utterly alien concept on the mainland.

February 9, 2006 @ 9:24 am | Comment

I agree about the queing but feel that the situation is even worse in Taiwan where people form tentative half-line half-clusters and cut when it looks like they can get away with it. When it comes to lines, I say all or nothing.

February 9, 2006 @ 9:37 am | Comment

“…but throughout China, couldn’t you argue that they’re trying to impose ‘western’ standards of politeness indiscriminately upon a very eastern civilization.”

Here is the crux of the situation. China wants tourists to come to the events. If the tourists don’t come due to repulsion of the environment or the behavior of the natives, then the whole dog & pony show that has kept Beijing occupied will be for naught. If you want someone’s money, you have to cater to their needs, wants, and desires. If you don’t want Western Money, then don’t bother with learning how to cater to their standards.

The reverse also applies, but I don’t know if the Italians are trying to cater to “Eastern” standards of politeness for the Winter Games.

February 9, 2006 @ 10:30 am | Comment

“couldn’t you argue that they’re trying to impose ‘western’ standards of politeness indiscriminately upon a very eastern civilization.”

Yes, but if they want to earn tourist dollars, they have to play the tourists game. The staff at Disney land are farm more polite than the people on the streets outside are. And Beijing 2008 will be just as big a show as Disney land.

Plus, a lot of foreigners know about Japanese manners, but not Chinese manners, and simply presume that they are the same, and when they see that they are not, they inevitably contrast the two countries (I’ve seen this done, its not pretty), which is REALLY going to upset the Chinese.

Better imposing western manners on Beijing for a couple of weeks, than having 20,000 dumb western tourists saying omething stupid like “All that spitting, how disgusting. Why can’t the Chinese be ‘civilised’ like the Japanese?”

There’s be a RIOT. People would die.

February 9, 2006 @ 12:39 pm | Comment


Yep, I’ve seen that too. So many Chinese people have a chip on their shoulder about that they can’t ever admit Japan does anything better. But really they should learn from the fact that virtually all Japanese manage to smile when engaging with foreigners even if they don’t feel like it. And it just makes it sooo much easier to justify going back there.

February 9, 2006 @ 1:57 pm | Comment

It’s a shame that Beijing Mayor Wang Qishan made those ludicrous comments. If he’s so pessimistic about the Peikingers” decorum, why should the government bid for the 2008 Olympic first?
Why spitting is ubiquitous in China? The answer is air quality is so bad that people have to spit to let the dirt out.
These bureaucrats sitting comfortbly in their posh offices should be held responsible. Shame on Wang Qishan.

February 9, 2006 @ 7:36 pm | Comment

Pardon my ignorance: Is spitting in China a 20th century phenomenon brought on by pollution as some are implying, or does it go back further in the nation’s history? (Anyone with a PhD in spitting who can give us some insight?)

February 9, 2006 @ 7:47 pm | Comment

It doesn’t take a PhD degree to know that a gritty mouth has to spit.
No matter how well educated you are. I don’t see an iota of vulgarity in spitting when sandstorm hits.

February 9, 2006 @ 8:02 pm | Comment

How come I don’t feel the need to spit all the time in China and I’ve been here for the fat end of 15 years? Presumably the grit and dust and all sorts of things in the air should affect me as well.

My pet peeve or at least something I’ve found “interesting” is the way men will scrub like like they are about to perform open heart surgery BEFORE using the toilet then act like they are allergic to water once they have finished.

February 9, 2006 @ 9:00 pm | Comment

Li Hongzhang (1823-1901), the prominent minister of the late Qing Dynasty who was the founder of the Chinese navy and a well-regarded diplomat on a state visit to England spat on the carpet during a talk with a British minister causing a great loss of face affecting the reputation of all Chinese people.
So no, don’t blame pollution or any of the other ills of the 29th century.
If China is going to invite the world to come (after its tantrums from being denied the Olympics previously) then it must act in a dignified manner befitting a host.
And Ivan, I think th reason Yanks spat all the time was because of chewing tobacco, not because it was ‘too dangerous to swallow their phlegm’.

February 10, 2006 @ 1:05 am | Comment


I know, you’re right about how the Yanks chewed tobacco back then. (And in parts of the country, a lot of guys still do.) But I’m just sayin’, there’s nothing especially Asian about revolting habits – which suggests that the Chinese can and should grow out of them.

February 10, 2006 @ 1:23 am | Comment

Hong Kong is a highly polluted city, much of it a gift from unregulated factories across the border.

But, guess what, the great majority of Hong Kong Chinese don’t spit publicly, not even into plastic bags.

And I wasn’t under the impression that the air in Tokyo is pellucid and sweet.

So, please none of this bollocks about public spitting being the consequence of pollution.

Oh, and Hong Kong Chinese have also largely managed to get the hang of queueing.

February 10, 2006 @ 5:03 am | Comment

“And I wasn’t under the impression that the air in Tokyo is pellucid and sweet.”

Tokyo may be a crowded metropolis but the poor air quality in Beijing is in another category altogether. Relatively speaking, Tokyo’s air is both pellucid and ambrosial.

February 10, 2006 @ 12:08 pm | Comment

It wasn’t but 20 or 30 years ago that people here in US used to chew and spit tobacco everywhere. Now practically nobody does it.

Societal norms can be changed, if there is a will and massive education to do it.

February 11, 2006 @ 9:39 pm | Comment

It wasn’t but 20 or 30 years ago that people here in US used to chew and spit tobacco everywhere.

Are you talking about the whole USA, or just the Appalachians?

February 12, 2006 @ 6:26 am | Comment

What can you do when you see “observations” like that, that are simply totally false?

February 12, 2006 @ 6:35 am | Comment

I can’t stop laughing! Having been in China for 2 years, the problem with China is so obviuos, its full of Chinese!!!

The governent can change some manners of a few people for a short time, but,
when are they going to teach the government officials not to be corrupt???

February 12, 2006 @ 10:55 am | Comment

Li Hongzhang (1823-1901)

You know, i could just see this guy hocking up a big loogie on the queens carpet, between chain smoking and farting. its not about if you spit, or do other human things, its about when you choose to do it. i see slot of chinese not picking good moments. farting in the middle of an elevator trip, spitting on indoor floors. etc.

February 12, 2006 @ 2:46 pm | Comment

Well yes, come to think of it, they’ll never have to worry about a gas shortage.

February 12, 2006 @ 6:36 pm | Comment


There’s pollution and there’s pollution.

HK and Tokyo’s is fine mostly find particulates and gasses like o-zone, China’s is often formed by heavy particulates (particularly soot type particulates from inefficient engines and fuel burning).

Fine particulates cause less irritation.

Plus, more people in China smoke

February 13, 2006 @ 5:01 am | Comment

I don’t think it’s actually healthier to spit vs swallow. Stomach acids will kill any bacteria/germs/virus in the phlegm.

February 13, 2006 @ 7:41 pm | Comment

You don’t have to go all the way to China to see this behavior. We spend countless hours trying to convince a Coworker from China to stop Farting in the Room at work. He said I just can not help it and every company I worked for in the USA is was an okay thing to do. This was his big lie. Human resources said they never had to deal with anthing like that in 50 years. We don’t even hear an apology from him. That is so discusting.
He is still at it Farting and Farting but trying to do it quitely. He workes in a very good company and makes around $90,000 a year Farting his way through

April 12, 2006 @ 3:25 pm | Comment

Beijing should appoint the beautiful Baroness von Kohorn to teach the people of beijing western manners. Baroness von Kohorn works very closely with the diplomatic corps and has taught over 500 Japanese students western manners and culture. A look-a-like Audrey Hepburn, beautifully spoken English has been a great success in Australia, she has even taught Australian footballers good table manners. For more information contact me at the above email address.

July 31, 2006 @ 4:27 am | Comment

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