BEIJING — IMAGINE this: You walk into a department store, spot your item, and ask the clerk for help. "Don't you see I'm busy. What's the hurry?" barks the salesperson.
Stunned, you turn to another clerk who also shrugs off the query. You say that you need assistance. "Can't you see I'm busy," she snaps. "What do you have ears for? Didn't you hear me?"
In shock, you give up, go outside and hail a taxi for home. "How much are you going to give me?" demands the driver. You tell him to turn on the meter. "My meter is broken, and I don't know the way," he says, abandoning you and zooming off.
A Monty Python skit? No, everyday surliness in China, self-admittedly a country with a penchant for impoliteness.
"I don't know how you put up with Beijing and all the rude people," laments a Chinese professor. "I can't stand it, and I was born here."
But now that the socialist economy is on the road to market-style reform, the Chinese government is undertaking a major new reform campaign: improving Chinese manners.
Sprucing-up for summit
Ahead of the United Nations women's summit, expected to draw more than 30,000 visitors to Beijing later this month, authorities have announced they are getting tough on public rudeness and ripoffs by taxi drivers.
More than four decades of egalitarian Communist rule have taken a toll on common courtesy. Sullen, even churlish workers in state-run stores, post offices, airport and train counters, and even hospitals answer almost every request for assistance either indifferently or with an outright "no."
In many workplaces where market competition has ushered in a new concern for customers, pressure has increased on lethargic, impolite Chinese workers to clean up their act.
And the emergence of foreign and privately owned enterprises has forced government officials to put a new emphasis on courtesy. So far, they have seen limited results.
This month, Guangming Daily, an official newspaper, took a harder line and said that 50 ill-mannered but commonly used phrases would be banned in airports, train stations, post offices, hospitals, and department stores. The niceties include: "Go ask someone else"; "hurry up and pay"; and "can't you see I'm busy."
Employees can be dismissed if their language is too grievous, the newspaper said, although Western residents aren't anticipating an immediate turnaround.
"I'm not expecting to be told to 'have a nice day' anytime soon," says a Western diplomat.
Thousands of Beijing taxis are also a target in the campaign. Starting Aug. 1, municipal officials clamped down on taxi drivers arguing over fares, refusing to issue receipts, and generally ripping off customers, especially foreigners.
The taxi trade in the Chinese capital has become chaotic since their numbers have soared to 60,000 from about 15,000 in 1992, officials say. Many taxi services, which employ more than 80,000 drivers often without any formal driving training, were launched to absorb workers laid off by government offices and floundering state factories. The taxis carry about 1.5 million passengers daily.
Under new rules, drivers who turn away passengers, overcharge, or refuse to give receipts are fined $120, about double the old rate. Driver's licenses can be suspended for three to six months, or even revoked.
The worst offenders are the drivers of the more than 30,000 mini-van taxis who often refuse to take passengers to inconvenient locations, especially during rush hours. To ease traffic congestion, the city wants to phase out the mini-vans whose low fares have made taxi travel affordable for many city residents, but are regarded as slow-moving and dangerous.
Taxis fail test
In a one-day spot-check of taxis earlier this month, drivers failed badly. More than 60 passengers called to complain, and 5 percent of the 1,500 taxi drivers inspected had refused passengers, charged exorbitant fees, drove without a license, or failed to use their meters.
The New China News Agency reported that more than 1,000 taxi drivers have had their licenses suspended for "unprofessional behavior," and 10 companies were temporarily closed. In advance of the women's conference, taxi drivers said they were called in for mass meetings and told to not make "subversive" comments critical of the government to passengers.
But it seems that taxis have a long way to go before turning over a new leaf.
One American visitor arriving at the Beijing airport late at night got into an argument with the driver over his refusal to turn on the meter and the excessive fare charged.
Stopping on a darkened expressway, the driver told her to pay the fare or get out. She paid.