Many people around the world have a bad impression of Chinese tourists due to the way they behave when visiting foreign countries. In the past few years, these tourists have really earned a really bad reputation worldwide. You can read these articles from South China Morning Post, The Economist and the Huffington Post.
Even those of Chinese descent in Southeast Asia, Hong Kong and Taiwan are unable to tolerate such behaviors. For instance, in Hong Kong, there were instances where Chinese mothers allowed their children to urinate in public which made several HK residents extremely unhappy. When confronted by HK people, the mum slapped one on the face and rammed another with the pram. (You can read about the whole incident here).
In fact, in response to a poll by the SCMP.com headlined “What makes some Hongkongers dislike mainland China and its people?”, more than 50 per cent readers blamed the negative feelings on “ill-behaved tourists” believing that they have money but not the manners.
It is the same in Taiwan whereby recently a PRC mother let her children defecate on the floor of Kaohsiung airport in Taiwan, just meters (feet) from a toilet. She did put newspaper down first though.
Many Chinese nationals also frown upon the bad behavior of their fellow country men. The topic has been a big hit on China’s social media, where bloggers discuss and criticize the uncivilized behavior of other Chinese tourists.
It is not the case that every single Chinese tourists and immigrants are badly behaved. It is just that quite a number of Chinese tourists have given their country a bad name through uncivillized behavior abroad, much to the dismay of the rest of the civilized population in China.
For some time, I have been thinking why there was such a big difference in the behavior and reputation of Chinese tourists from China and the Chinese from places with a significant Chinese population such as Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia.
Given that we are all of similar ethnic origin, it probably has little to do with genetics or Chinese culture but rather the environment in China itself.
After thinking about this topic, I decided to write this post to share with the readers about why Chinese people behave this way and enable them to be more tolerant, understanding and empathetic towards them.
1) Scarcity and lawlessness in their country has resulted in the need to prioritize one’s interest to survive
One of the main reason why Chinese tourists have earned a bad reputation is due to their self-centered and lawless ways, disregarding the regulations of other countries.
Some common examples of such behaviors include actions like cutting queues; pushing other tourists; taking photos with flash when it is prohibited; or kicking up a big fuss over small things.
What makes people to “put their own interest and survival first at all times”?
The first reason is due to the scarcity and immense competition which exists in the country. There has been a looooooooong recent history of 150 years of non-stop violence and political and social chaos. Things in China have only started to stabilize in the recent decades.
This is the long list of bullshit the poor Chinese people had to endure
1839 – Opium War
1842 – Treaty of Nanjing and end of Opium War, Losing HK to British Powers 南京條約
1894 -Japanese invasion 甲午戰爭
1899 – Boxer Rebellion 义和团运动
1911 -End of Qing Dynasty (清朝). Sun Yat Sen (孫逸仙) founded democractic China
1916 -Warlord Era 軍閥時代
1927 – Nanchang Uprising 南昌起義 and CHinese Civil War 国共内战
1937 – Japanese Occupation 八年抗戰
1958 – Great Leap forward 大跃进
1959 – Great Chinese Famine (三年大饑荒)
1966 – 1976 -Cultural Revolution (無產階級文化大革命) and Down to the Countryside Movement (上山下乡运动)
1989- Tianamen Incident 六四事件
For many Chinese, it’s not a distant past when they lived their lives in scarcity every single day. So, whenever there’s a little bit trace of a shortage, their survival mode is on.
This poverty and instability was worsened by the breakdown in social order from 1967 to 1976. In a communist society, there cannot be religion or anything that is above the state. As a result of the Cultural Revolution (無產階級文化大革命), people spied on each other, were sent off to work camps, children turned on parents, students turned on teachers etc. There was a lot of distrust in society and people competed for everything.
These days, China is richer and stable, things have improved. However, attitudes remain. Furthermore, their society is even more competitive than before. Population has grown to be so huge and there are hardly sufficient for everyone.
In fact, over one-third of students taking “gao kao” (Their version of our GCE A levels) reported having psychosomatic symptoms at least once a week. (You can read all about their education system here).
Just like how competitiveness in Singapore has led to the whole ugly kiasu culture which we have here, I believe that in a society like China, the social impact would be more worse.
Besides scarcity and competition for resources, another factor would be the fact that in many parts of China, things like rule-of-law doesn’t really exist. Corruption is rife. This is according to Yong Chen, tourism researcher and post-doctoral fellow at Hong Kong Polytechnic University.
Besides having to look out for oneself to ensure one’s survival, the lack of rule-of-law and corruption also means people have little or no respect for laws. This is bound to happen when ordinary people in China are forced to watch their rights and laws being violated every day by their leaders, Chen said, citing the Chinese idiom, 上行下效, meaning that “people in lower class follow what their leaders in the upper class do”.
When I was younger, I visited my uncle and his family in Beijing. We went to a restaurant to dine. Then the waitress forgot to bring us water even though we requested for it a few times. My uncle kicked a huge fuss over it to the extent to berating a few waitresses and the manager.
I felt it was rather strange and unbecoming given that it wasn’t a very bad mistake and that my uncle was a good tempered man. Later on, my father explained to me that it was China’s style of doing things and if you show weaknesses and all, you would get taken advantage of.
2) Living environment of the urban poor in China
Another key contributing factor of uncivilized behavior would be the living conditions of many of the poor people in China which results in them having almost no concept of personal space, modesty and privacy.
This point was raised by Miss Chen who is from Tianjin. Chen explained that not too long ago in China, there was a Hukou system which inhibited migration from villages to cities.
Since the 1990s, this system has been abolished and people were free to move around. As such, several young people travelled from the rural areas to cities like Tianjin, Guangzhou and Shanghai. Many of them end up working in factories and live in terrible conditions such as crammed dormitories. As such, there is little concept of personal space and privacy.
Family members share toilets, bedrooms… everything. They get used to the noise, the total lack of privacy, even seeing each other naked, in the toilet, in a way that would just go against all manners of social norms in the West.
She goes on to give this example:
What stops people from just pissing or shitting in the public in the West and other countries is modesty – they don’t want complete strangers to get to see them in the act of pissing or shitting. Modesty simply isn’t there, people just don’t care who gets to see them naked as they are so used to it growing up in such cramped and crowded conditions.
Thus, when Chinese people travel out of China. They fail to realize that other people value things like privacy and modesty which they did not have the luxury of having all their life. They don’t know that acts like speaking loudly causes disturbances to others because they have been just so used in living in environments where speaking loudly is a norm.
I do agree with this very much. When I go to places like Sentosa, the female Chinese tourists would often take a bath or change outside the cubicles. The nudity was very uncomfortable for me. It also annoys me when Chinese nationals in Singapore speak loudly on the phone in the MRT.
However, now that I understand why, I try to put myself in their shoes and be more tolerant. Why so? Because it could have been me who was born in such conditions instead of being born into a family in Singapore where I have things like my own room, the opportunity to pursue a good education and don’t have to work in some sweatshop.
3) The lack of education
I would attribute some of the inconsiderate behavior such as environmental damage to the lack of education. Yes, China is now getting richer and many people are educated. However their social inequality is also very high which means that there are many people who are deprived of the opportunity to further their studies.
Furthermore, during the period of 1960s-1970s, China was going through a politically unstable period. Many of the people who were born or young during that time were deprived of proper education. As such, many don’t speak English or even standard mandarin well. They end up not understanding several social norms.
Thus, if you observe closely, not every single Chinese tourist or immigrant is rude. Usually, the educated people have better behaviour than those who are less educated.
I would think that the quality of education in schools and poor public education is one of the main reasons why Chinese people are not as environmentally conscious as the rest of the world. China’s prosperity has increased demand for things like animal fur, Tiger, Shark, elephant and rhinoceros products leading to a huge decline in these endangered animals.
In fact, during my recent trip to the Maldives, the resort had specially started a compulsory lecture that everyone had to attend before snorkelling. The course was in two languages – Mandarin and English. When I asked why, the staff told me it was due to the rise in Mainland tourist who were unfamiliar with how to protect our oceans and coral reefs. I also noticed that the slides were in Chinese and English but not in other languages.
Why do they have such poor environmental awareness? I would think that it is because it is something that is not emphasized on in schools and the culture. When people are so busy thinking about how to survive and meet basic material needs, it is difficult for them to think about higher-order things like charity, environmental preservation etc.
However I believe that this is improving. It isworth noting that before 1994, China had no environmental non-governmental organizations (NGOs). As of 2005, there are approximately 2,000 NGOs that were officially registered. In 2013, China banned Sharkfin in all official banquets and this year, sales of shark fin has plunged drastically. The European Union is also starting to collaborate with China to pursue green growth.
4) Lack of exposure to foreign cultures
China has only recently become rich and it is the first few times that many of the tourists are actually travelling out to visit foreign countries. As such, even the adults are often inexperienced and unfamiliar with overseas rules and norms. This is according to Liu Simin, researcher with the Tourism Research Centre of Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
“Objectively speaking, our tourists have relatively low-civilized characters…Overseas travel is a new luxury, Chinese who can afford it compare with each other and want to show off,” she said.
You can argue and say things like “So, it is also my first few times travelling but you had the luxury of your parents going with you on your first trip and socializing you into proper tourist etiquette, these people don’t.
Just like the Chinese, criticism of bad behavior has in the past been leveled at American, Japanese and Taiwanese tourists, when they were also enjoying new wealth and going abroad for the first time.
Experts believe that such negative behaviour will fade over time. According to Wang Wanfei, a Tourism Professor at Zhejiang University
“Travelling is a learning experience for tourists…They learn how to absorb local culture in the process, and get rid of their bad tourist behaviour.”
Besides lacking the travel experience physically, many Chinese people are ignorant in the sense that they are monocultural and monolingual. It is not like in Singapore where we are exposed to the whole racial tolerance, adapt to other people cultures and have the option to develop ourselves as bicultural individuals or people with tons of international exposure.
As Miss Chen (as quoted above) said:
“If you’re monolingual, if you do not speak English, then you are unlikely to be aware of what other cultures deem acceptable, you only have one point of view, one way to look at the world and they are unable to appreciate the depth of disapproval from people in Singapore or France in such cases.”
5) Rise of the Noveau Riche 新贵
Besides rude behaviour, Chinese tourists also have a reputation of being very materialistic.
However, this has more to do with the fact that they are “newly rich” rather than the fact that they are Chinese.
As a brilliant person on quora explains:
China’s economic conditions in the last 15-20 years has made it easy to make a lot of money, thus leading to the current rise of the nouveau riche. Generally speaking, this class is business-savvy, but they are not particularly well-educated nor do they possess the “well-cultured” behaviours and attitudes that people from old money naturally inherit.
So compounded with the culture of maintaining face, Chinese people from new money have to prove their status in society by showing off that they’re rich and influential.
Consider this from another angle: Chinese women buy three times more Maseratis and two times more Ferraris than Western women. Why? Because it’s a status marker of their earning potential, their independence, and their power. In a society that still values men over women, successful Chinese women exert their power by subverting traditional notions of gender – thus, showing others that they are equally, if not more, ambitious and capable as men.
In China right now, conspicuous consumption is not really about compensating for low self-esteem, but rather about vying for social status when one’s social position isn’t always tenable.
I would venture a guess that the reasons detailed for China are similar to the ones for Japan and South Korea, the latter two countries with economies that have also experienced great economic growth relatively recently compared to Western countries.
I don’t think there’s anything intrinsic about Asian culture that compels Asian people today to purchase luxury goods – it just so happens that we live in a time when economic conditions in East Asia have introduced conspicuous consumption as a means for the newly rich to attain social status.
Further reading: Fear of a Chinese Luxury Consumer Market by Minh-Ha T. Pham
Ending off, while I have had negative experiences with people from China, I’ve also had very good encounters.
- Throughout my life, teachers from China have inspired me greatly. My favourite teacher in secondary school is Zeng Danlin. She is from China but she is one of those rare teachers who care about student’s welfare and saw the best in me. I was a really rebellious kid back then but she talked a lot of sense into me. In 2011, when I had problems with my bf, she counselled me as well.
- In year one in university, the professor who taught me my first ever public policy course and inspired me to pursue a minor was from China. His name is Yu Wenxuan. He is nothing like those mean Chinese people who cut queues and take advantage of others. Instead, he is very civilized, kind, funny and good tempered. Everyone loves him.
- In 2006, I attended an exchange program in Huangshan (黃山) and Shanghai (上海). The students and teachers there were VERY HOSPITABLE and attentive to us. I’ve been to several countries for conferences like South Korea, Budapest, Hong Kong, etc. I have never ever received this extent of hospitality and care. Till today, I still keep the many gifts they showered upon me and have many wonderful memories there.
- During the first three months of junior college, I was in science stream. I struggled a lot with chemistry because I was just not naturally inclined in that subject. The students who were the most patient and helpful with me were the PRC scholars and Malaysian scholars. After first three months, I switched to the arts stream so I could play to my strengths. However, I still have a very good impression of the scholars in 08S30. To all those who curse Chinese scholars for spoiling the bell curve, I would say that they actually work much harder than many of us. So, they deserve the good grades that they have.
They are the reason why I have chosen to write this post. To share with my readers about the circumstances which shaped the mentality and attitudes of PRCs. Hopefully, after reading my post, you will be more empathetic, understanding and tolerant towards mainland tourists.
More importantly, you will be reminded that these ill-behaved tourists do not represent every single person in China and that there are still nice people.
I know it is hard to not get irritated with China people behaving badly abroad or anything. I myself am no saint and get upset too especially at Ocean Park when my queue is cut or when I get pushed around. However, we really have to think about our privilege compared to the type of circumstances they were born in and put up with.
I am not saying they are right and that we should accept such behavior. In fact, I think that people who come to Singapore for holiday, work or study, should do their best to abide by our social norms.
However, I hope that after reading this post, readers can reexamine stereotypes against people from China and correct them. It is one thing to be against a particular behavior and another to be against one entire group of people because of the bad news you read from the media and the bad eggs you encounter.
If you would like to know more about China, do check out my other post on visiting Harbin, one of the coldest tourist destinations in China.