Friday, January 5, 2007
If rudeness is outlawed, then will only outlaws be rude? This question is stimulated by a recent story in the Los Angeles Times reporting that according to a new Beijing municipal regulation, "[s]tarting next month, Beijing shopkeepers who vent their anger, act impatiently, glance at customers disdainfully or act absent-mindedly are in violation of the law." The article goes on: "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?"
Actually, I think the LAT is being a little unfair in poking fun at this document; entitled 北京市商业零售企业员工行为礼仪规范（试行） (Beijing Municipality Standards for Polite Behavior by Commercial Retail Sales Enterprise Personnel (for Trial Implementation), issued Nov. 10, 2006), it is (as one commentary points out) not intended to be a set of rules enforceable by punishments. It is not clear that the issuing body, the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Commerce, would have the authority to prescribe punishments even if it wanted to. Nevertheless, it belongs squarely within a tradition of Chinese governments trying to get their citizens to shape up that dates back at least to Chiang Kai-shek's New Life movement in the 1930s, and that continues today with the Eight Glories Eight Shames (八荣八耻) campaign and attempts to get tourists to behave better.
Public reaction has been rather skeptical; one commentator opines that polite behavior by service personnel is the result of competition in the marketplace, not government decree, pointing out that you get much better service in the more highly marketized south. But certainly a casual attitude toward customer service cannot be blamed solely on socialism; Lao She satirized it in 1934 in his short piece "Withdrawing Money" (取钱) (worth looking at if you read Chinese).
If this were a Time magazine article, it would end by saying something like, "One thing seems certain: whatever the government decrees, Beijing's taxi drivers are likely to continue to go their own way." But it isn't.