China Chatter: China's Ms. Manners

China’s trying to spruce up its image at home and abroad. But can Beijing stop the China backlash?

There's little question China's entrepreneurial class carries its endemic corruption abroad. And they seem to have bad manners to boot. Now, in Papua New Guinea (PNG), Tonga, Africa and other poor countries, Chinese merchants manage to get their hands on otherwise protected resources and export them, jostling and pushing their way to their goal. Workaday locals are starting to revolt.

On the morning of September 20, thousands of rioters ransacked the small but thriving Chinatown in the heart of Port Hagen, PNG. According to the handful of press reports that emerged from the smoke and gloom, the targets were Chinese-owned businesses that have prospered alongside Chinese investments in PNG's resource extraction industries.

None of this is surprising or new. There have been other recent riots in PNG cities where Chinese immigrants (many illegal) have settled to work, and elsewhere in Asia, anti-Chinese riots have occurred in the Solomon Islands (April 2006) and Tonga (November 2006). In Burma, where Chinese could number as much as 5% of the population, anti-Chinese sentiment has run so high in the past that top officials in Beijing demanded that the military government do more to protect its citizens-though presumably China has done little to encourage its citizens to be nicer to the locals.

Since Beijing won the bid for the 2008 Olympics, Chinese social behavior has been undergoing a semi-official critical self-examination largely unprecedented since the Cultural Revolution. It's most clear in Beijing, where signs warning against spitting and queue-jumping are appearing throughout the city. China has seen similar campaigns throughout the years, but the new campaign is different in one crucial respect, and that is its unrelenting emphasis on improving social behavior-for the benefit of "foreign friends."

Earlier this year, Feng Xiaogang, one of China's most beloved film directors, released eight short television public service announcements demonstrating-by example-proper social behaviors. In one, the driver of an SUV backs off a parking space to allow a pretty woman in a smaller car to take it; in another, a man shames a group of boys into picking up a littered cigarette butt; and in another, a handsome young man re-shelves the groceries left behind by a portly housewife (presumably) too lazy to leave the queue and re-shelve them herself. At an August news conference, Feng made it quite clear that the purpose of the ads was not to improve China simply for the Chinese.

Besides showing the world its new image-its architecture, many modernized aspects of the city-Beijing should also show foreigners that the quality of its residents is quite good.

This sort of thinking has its excesses. Recently, several Chinese blogs displayed-indignantly- a photo of a small-town political banner instructing residents to "Go Out Less To Let Foreign Guests Have Broad Roads For Smooth Transportation."

Significantly, the concern isn't limited to how Chinese are perceived in Beijing. Last year, China's National Tourism Administration implemented a program-to last until Olympic August 2008 - to improve the behavior of Chinese tourists abroad. Some of this has been covered by foreign media. But what hasn't been covered is the unusually scathing self-assessment taking place in public, and on blogs. Wu Fei, an influential Chinese blogger, took up the topic and found his post reprinted in media licensed by the state. In translation (provided by the Danwei Blog) he wrote:

I think that so-called uncivilized behavior abroad has nothing to do with fierce farmers and their shrewish wives out in the countryside, because our country's poor people don't have the money to leave the country to sightsee. I don't think I have to tell you what sort of person it is who can frequently go abroad to sightsee …

So far as I know, there haven't been any recent anti-Chinese riots in Las Vegas or any of the other destinations popular with Chinese tourists-most of which are in the developed world. This list includes Australia, which is popular with Chinese tourists and executives with Chinese iron ore importers.

Yet extraction of natural resources and resulting Chinese wealth is the root of much resentment against Chinese immigrants and traders in poorer Asian nations, including PNG and Tonga. The obvious difference is that Australia is a developed country with the rule of law-and leverage- against the Chinese. If the Chinese don't do business by Australia's rules, they'll lose face and access to Australia's resources. Losing "face" with Tonga and PNG is a lesser concern, not only because they lack Australia's developed world standing, but-quite simply-their economies are increasingly at the mercy of China's resource extraction industries, and China is in a position to strong-arm them.

Meanwhile, the developed nations whose approval China so desperately seeks seem determined to provide that approval, implicitly, when addressing China as a foreign power capable of intervening in a place like Burma. And yet, at the same time, those same nations refuse to risk offending China by calling it on how it obtains that power in a place like Burma.

In the run-up to August 2008, the Chinese government and its people are strangely united in their desire to be perceived as behaving like a civilized, developed nation. If that's what they want, then why shouldn't the developed world remind them when they've failed to earn it? Where threats and boycotts fail, a little public shame might just succeed-at least, until 2008.

Adam Minter is a freelance journalist based in Shanghai. He blogs at Shanghai Scrap.