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Chinese New Year: How the world sees China

As Chinese people welcome in the Year of the Sheep, Ram or Goat, many in Shanghai are trying to shake off the negative image earned by badly behaved antics of those travelling at home and abroad, giving China a bad reputation

Nyima Pratten
Friday 20 February 2015 13:01 GMT
(Getty Images)

Recently, it seems to have become a trend in Chinese news - nationals behaving badly on airplanes. We have seen emergency exits opened to get a breath of fresh air whilst waiting for take-off, emergency slides deployed in order to disembark quicker and an air stewardess’ assault combined with a bomb threat; all for reasons only apparent to those involved. It is seen as such a problem for the national image that numerous officials, organisations and state-run media outlets continue to deliver advice about how to present a positive image of China when travelling abroad, and be helpful emissaries for the, sometimes misunderstood, country. Last year, even Chinese President Xi Jinping issued a warning to prospective tourists.

However, as the world looks on in shock and horror at some of these stories, so too are many Chinese people, from developed, world-leading Chinese cities, such as Shanghai. Much eye rolling and head shaking is induced when yet another story is published about unruly nationals abroad, and it is clear that a tacit new social class system has been formed.

Local Shanghainese have an implicit confidence in, and proudness of, their international city, and tend to look down upon their countryside compatriots, as the unsophisticated people who let children defecate in public and display bad manners; stories of which go viral on social media every day. Over a few decades, globalisation has changed a supposedly classless system of communist peers into a society broken down into distinct social groups, and during the slowdown in the economy, some city dwellers are looking to differentiate themselves from the unruly masses.

To enter the social stratosphere, one’s status is becoming less dependent on the materialism of yesteryear, and more focused on the way one presents oneself as a brand, in alignment with the values of the global community. Debrett’s, the trusted source on British social skills, etiquette and style, recently began training programmes in Shanghai, and launched a Chinese website offering the wealthy a way to differentiate themselves.

Furthermore, Xi Jinping’s anti-graft campaign, targeting Party, government, military and state-owned company officials suspected of corruption, has meant that people from the top down are less likely, or less able, to splash their money about. There is now more emphasis on being perceived to have class, not just money.

This new social class system is not as deeply entrenched as the British class system but, in a striking resemblance, the nouveau riche, known as tuhao, are looked down upon. They are described as having more money than sense, and are perceived as people who go around buying up all the designer items they come into contact with, in a frenzied manner; an issue that is causing controversy in Hong Kong as many Mainlanders go to the territory to buy goods at lower tax rates.

As the New Year enters, however, it seems that state-run media, People’s Daily, is trying a new approach, with an infographic about how badly behaved foreign tourists act in China, and around the world. By throwing some shade on the rest of the world, China is trying to prove that it is not just their country that suffers uneducated fools. It’s everyone else’s too.

There was much excitement at the announcement that Prince William would be gracing China with his presence this year thanks to a ‘cultural exchange’ between the two countries, and the Prince’s attempt at speaking Mandarin, albeit with a slightly French accent, in his Chinese New Year message was well received. To some, this elevated China’s standing on the world stage to the level of class and sophistication often associated with Britain and the monarchy. Somehow, this was orchestrated without referencing a slightly awkward moment in their shared history…(nobody mention opium).

In fact, Britain is actively encouraging Chinese tourists to visit its shores with a Visit Britain campaign inviting Chinese people to give Mandarin names to 101 points of interest in the country. So perhaps it doesn’t really matter what the world thinks about Chinese tourists. As long as their economy continues to prosper, countries will welcome Chinese tourists with open arms as 100 Yuan bills flash before their eyes.

One Chinese family travelling to London from Beijing this holiday wrote handcrafted notes for their fellow passengers apologising, in advance, for their baby daughters’ crying. Specifically, they said, because English people pay special attention to etiquette. At least for some, demonstrating success during the Chinese New Year holidays this year isn’t just about stuffing a hongbao full of money and bringing home a suitable partner, it is also about differentiating oneself from negative Chinese stereotypes.

Nyima Pratten is the Managing Editor of expat lifestyle magazine, Talk Shanghai

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