Chapter One: Etiquette of Civilised Behaviour, reads the first of a stack of little instruction books I opened after meeting an official of a government arm that few outside China can even imagine exists — the Office of Capital Cultural and Ethical Progress Construction, Beijing.
On guard: Special police armed with automatic rifles patrol the airport to boost security. Photograph: Reinhard Krause / Reuters
In a quest to execute the authoritarian Communist Party of China’s version of a “civilized” summer Olympics from 8-24 August, this righteous ethics office has blanketed Beijing with instructions on “elegant behaviour” for residents as well as foreigners, unlike what any other Olympics host city has ever done.
Many of Beijing’s 17 million people — from taxi drivers to waitresses and cleaning ladies —now know these reform rules, thanks to house visits by teachers and contests that promote manners and etiquette.
An excerpt from one such behaviour book:
“Please dress nicely when in public.
The audience should warmly applaud all the athletes.
Don’t stand up or walk around during the events.
Leaving early is bad manners when watching games.
The audience should accept victory and loss as part of the competition.
Keep elegant and refined when eating in public places.
Don’t make noise in public places.
We should say hello when answering the phone.
Please do not run for seats on buses.
Foul language degrades our cultural surroundings.”
The book also says it is impolite for women to wear pyjamas in public, for men to show their bellies during summer, to have smelly hair, or spit in flower beds, as Beijingers still do.
“For 100 years, we Chinese have dreamt of hosting the Olympics,” says Sun Baoli, a division chief of Olympics volunteer training. And in that zeal to impress, Beijing will ensure that when 500,000 visitors and athletes step out of its new international airport terminal — which happens to be the world’s largest building — and drive past the luminous, odd-shaped towers that rise as testimonies to the city’s $40 billion (around Rs1.7 trillion) infrastructure makeover, they will see a new, polished China and its practised image.
An orderly superpower is literally staging its “coming out party”. “We want to improve the citizens’ quality and level of cultural civilization in this city without force,” Zheng Mojie, deputy director general of the Office, tells me when I meet her at a conference room her staff has booked for our interview in a hotel near Tiananmen Square. “Our main task is to teach people good ideas and improve human culture,” says Zheng, dressed in high-heeled shoes and a short black skirt.
Zheng’s staff cited security reasons for declining my requests to visit the Office, but Olympics tourists may find it tough to even enter a bar. Security is already extremely tight at nightclubs and bars near major sports venues. There is even speculation that they will be shut down in August. Police have been reminding bar owners of the 2am curfew. Meanwhile, rejections of visa applications have led to a dramatic drop in hotel occupancy in June and July; so rooms booked for the Olympics way back in 2005-06 are available again.
On guard: Special police armed with automatic rifles patrol the airport to boost security. Photograph: Claro Cortes IV / Reuters.
When we meet, Zheng is just back from three days spent in India for what she calls a “cultural experience”. She doesn’t elaborate, but she does say that she rode an elephant (“A brave woman!” exclaims my interpreter) and queued up to see a big white castle. But she can’t remember its name until I offer a guess — the Taj Mahal.
Queues are important in Beijing today, and for China’s image makeover. Since February 2007, the Office has been getting residents to practise queuing up on the 11th of every month — at shops, theatres, bus stops and subway stations. “Even if there are only two people at a venue, they should stand in a line,” says Zheng, pointing to scarves printed with pictures of two people standing in a row — these are being distributed to citizens.
Even sales staff — infamous for clutching foreigners’ wrists at Beijing’s Silk Street to exhort them to buy — have been told not to pressurize customers. Foreign prostitutes have been expelled. Spitting, queue-jumping, swearing and smoking are the four “new pests” targeted by the clean-up drive. During Mao Zedong’s rule, the four pests were rats, flies, mosquitoes and sparrows.
After millions have been spent, the streets are cleaner and beggars have been banished. Zheng says the anti-spitting campaign showed “apparent results” after the distribution of white and pink paper bags and tissues emblazoned with Olympics mascots among Beijing’s citizens. A fine up to 50 yuan (about Rs300) is levied every time anybody spits.
The people of Beijing are mute spectators to this etiquette drill. In a country where 290,798 people are named Wenming, which literally translates as “civilize”, the official agenda to “improve human culture” was accepted without any protest or debate, unlike Mumbai or Bangalore when it came to India’s outdated obscenity laws and curfews on nightclubs.
The good China: Workers clean the tiles of Tiananmen Square. Phtograph: Darren Whiteside / Reuters
Party orders publicized through its news agency Xinhua now routinely read like this report from 5 July: “China called upon all the citizens to improve their professional ethics and adopt good manners to create a sound social environment for the Beijing Olympic Games. Local governments, especially those of the host and co-host cities, should step up their efforts in promoting civilized manners.”
Spectators have been told not to stand during a Games event, and to politely tell other spectators to sit down if they stand up. Can 91,000 domestic and international sports fans at the new Bird’s Nest stadium be coached and controlled? “The very concept that fans should be coached shows the lack of understanding of sports in China,” says Rowan Simons, who pioneered amateur football in Beijing. “The question everyone asked was whether the Olympics would change China. The answer is that China has changed the Olympics.”
During an athletic test event in May, thousands of fans walked out prematurely after their star hurdler Liu Xiang won a gold. The Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post cheekily reported that the crowds were busy running for their own record of the quickest exit from a sports venue! The few who stayed behind clapped desultorily for the other athletes. For days later, dismayed officials in Beijing complained that the audience had not learnt the lessons.
In the green-and-yellow taxi I take after meeting Zheng, I ask the driver if he has learnt English, as instructed by his leaders. “I am 57 years old, how can I learn?” he replies in Chinese, looking in the glove compartment for his misplaced copy of courteous behaviour for taxi drivers.
While the Chinese have been instructed to be “warm-hearted, open and generous” to tourists, there will also be almost 500,000 security staff swarming the city, in a ratio of one official for every visitor. Elderly volunteers will be on the lookout to report “unauthorized protests” and behaviour that does not match China’s standards of civility. The unwritten rule is not to walk the surveillance camera-lined streets in a “Free Tibet” T-shirt. Security staff with sniffer dogs will ask subway commuters to swig their bottled water for safety checks.
A 57-point “behaviour guide for foreigners”, released in June in Beijing, warns foreigners against carrying drugs, mouthing insulting slogans, and bans religious, political or racial banners at sports venues. An Olympics ticket is not a guarantee to securing a visa, and don’t even think of lighting fireworks or partying outdoors. Broadcasters are still scrambling for unlikely permission to shoot at the iconic Tiananmen Square. About 800,000 students have been taught the official cheer: two claps, arms outstretched with thumbs up, two claps and arms extended upward. Another 448 volunteers on the grounds will lead the spectators to cheer the China way. Separate booklets on watching the Games instruct audiences not to wave flags and boo if they are upset with a judge’s decision or an athlete’s performance.
I recall Zheng’s words: “There are rules on when to clap, and when not to. I have gained a lot of knowledge from our booklets on watching the Games.” Indian fans, used to uproarious Mexican waves at cricket matches, had better get used to the Beijing clap.
Reshma Patil is the China correspondent of Hindustan Times.
Write to email@example.com