No, China’s problem has the charm of at least being unique. It appears that the one thing that most of her 1.2 billion citizens have in common is that they’re rude, crude, and darn proud of it.
Stalin’s Soviet Union was always announcing ambitious five-year plans for industry and agriculture, invariably failing to realize any of them, except in their dreams and their propaganda. Based on what I’ve been reading about Chinese behavior, their three-year plan is likewise doomed to failure.
It seems that the Chinese who, in the past, were famous for their dignified ways, have turned into a nation of boors. Not too surprisingly, they have super role model Mao Tse-tung to blame for it.
According to Edgar Snow, author of “Red Star Over China,” Mao was known to scratch himself wherever and whenever he felt like it, to remove his clothes and conduct meetings naked when the temperature rose, and to “absent-mindedly” open his fly, searching for lice and fleas. Frankly, if the man was known to attend meetings in his birthday suit, I don’t know why Mr. Snow would assume that Mao was being absent- minded when he went hunting for those pesky mites.
In 1954, we’re told, Mao met former British Prime Minister Clement Attlee while wearing pants that were patched on the butt. When one of his aides had suggested that he might wish to wear a new pair of trousers for the occasion, Mao replied, “Who will look at my behind?” Admittedly, it’s the sort of thing I say to my wife whenever she suggests I change my pants, shirt, shoes or jacket, before we go out, but Mao, being Mao, got away with it. It’s good to be dictator.
Flush with the success of that earlier fashion statement, in 1972, Mao attended the funeral of Marshall Chen Yi in his pajamas. I must confess that while Mao was alive, I always assumed he was an old sober sides, never even suspecting that inside that fat man a skinny man named Groucho Marx was screaming to get out.
Is it any wonder that with Mao setting the standards, today China is full of people who not only spit, but regularly urinate on the sidewalk. Butting in line is also commonplace, as is cooking on the street, which is also the favorite venue for fist fights.
In 1949, when the Communists took power, etiquette wasn’t merely sloughed aside, it was rooted out and sent packing. Refinement was seen as a plot by the former ruling class to keep the lower class in its place.
However, when during a basketball game last July, a Chinese player was fouled by a member of the Puerto Rican team, a small riot ensued, the crowd behaving in a way we have come to associate with English soccer hooligans and Oakland Raider football fans.
That served as a wake-up call for the government, suddenly envisioning more of the same or worse three short years down the road, when all the world’s eyes would be on Beijing.
Of course, it’s not just the Olympics that is motivating China to clean up its image. It’s also a matter of good business. It appears that, in spite of turning out all those cheap goods, Chinese businessmen and their employees are so rude, undependable and unethical, many American and European companies are loath to do business with them.
As a result, China is fostering a nationwide improvement program which includes TV shows, slogans, university courses and even competitions between cities, all intended to replace Mao with Miss Manners.
In Beijing, alone, 100,000 municipal workers are being trained to smile, bathe, and to wear socks to work. I’m guessing that one of the more popular slogans reminds one and all that Rome wasn’t built in a day.
In addition, June Yamada, author of an etiquette bestseller called “Tell It Like It Is, June,” has opened an academy devoted to improving social conduct. Because she also works outside her academy, on a recent weekend, she was training the sales staff at a high-end jewelry store. During several hours of role-playing, she instructed them to be warm and polite, and to stop doggedly following customers around the store as if they were all well-known jewel thieves.
Well, I, for one, wish China well. Even if they are a bunch of rotten Commies, it can’t hurt to have them at least become polite rotten Commies.
Plus, I was thinking, when her gig over there is finished, maybe we can persuade Ms. Yamada to come here and whip our sales people into shape.