A Chinese tourist enjoying a bicycle tour in Chiang Mai. Pic: AP.

A Chinese tourist enjoying a bicycle tour in Chiang Mai. Pic: AP.

By James Austin

Hardly a week goes by in Thailand when Chinese tourists are not in the press for an array apparent misdemeanors, most of which are petty cultural crimes relating to the breaching of Thailand’s many taboos. Social media has maintained a steady flow of viral photographs and videos of the Chinese parvenu in Thailand, purportedly shocking the nation – and the world – by defecating in streets, opening emergency doors on airplanes, drying laundry in public, and performing high-kicks on temple bells, all of which have led to an online dis-like campaign towards Thailand’s most lucrative tourist demographic.

On average Chinese tourists’ spend about $150 a day in Thailand for the eight days that they stay here, a little over what the average European spends. Out of the 24.8 million tourists that visited Thailand in 2014 – amounting to about 10% of the county’s GDP – Chinese tourists made up 18.6% of that number (4.6 million), making them the largest number of foreign visitors to the country. In an article in the Bangkok Post in February TAT (Tourism Authority of Thailand) governor, Thawatchai Arunyik, said that, “China remained a rising star for Thailand tourism, with a 22% arrival growth target to 5.6 million visitors this year.” Revenue from Chinese tourists is expected to rise by 27% in 2015, which will equal 248 billion baht (US$7.6 billion).

In terms of revenue a rising star, but perhaps in terms of reputation and current ethos Chinese tourists might better be served by the epithet, pain in the rectum. The irony is that, perhaps because of China’s ascending status on the world stage, its citizens abroad are regularly being perceived as the lowest of the low.

To somewhat attenuate China’s burgeoning reputation as the world’s worst tourists the Chinese government has created a behavior manifesto for citizens wanting to leave the country, with heady warnings to those who have played foul abroad. This has resulted in a ratings system that could prevent badly behaved citizens from taking holidays in the future. But are Chinese tourists really as bad as we are being led to believe? Is the Chinese government, by pandering to prejudice and blackballing its new-money itinerants, enabling the hype?

Earlier this month Thai authorities were reportedly mulling over the possibility of etiquette videos for Chinese tourists following an incident that involved holiday makers washing their feet and shoes in hand basins in one of Thailand’s national parks. In Thailand the foot is symbolically seen as lowest part of the body, and so it is an insult to point your feet at people, and certainly not put them where someone might wash their face (the head being the highest part of the body). Just last week another video that allegedly depicted unpardonable Chinese behavior went viral, containing a hyperbolic rant by Thai model Duangjai Phichitamphon at Korea’s Jeju Island Airport. The video showed Chinese tourists not adhering to queuing etiquette. The video reached 1.7 million views on YouTube, but it has also so far gotten 1.4 million views on Chinese video-sharing website Youku. The video, as well as the “furious debate” that followed its release surrounding Duangjai’s explicit comments, was later reported in the global press and the matter has become another big talking point considering Chinese behavior.

This stereotype of Chinese moneyed classes being unrefined and ill-mannered is now well-worn, and has become one of this century’s handy caricatures that fits comfortably into a narrow world view. Comments on the YouTube clip show intense animosity towards Chinese people that reflect this stereotype. The Chinese commenters for the most part lamented their own cultural norms, and put queuing chaos down to bad education, and also an arrogance propagated by wealth. One Chinese commenter, however, wrote:

“Is this shameful? There’s nothing really shameful about it. From the moment of birth, our countrymen have had to fight [scramble, contest, compete], in order to get milk powder [infant formula], and only by fighting can we get into good kindergartens, all the way up to university, from work to getting medical treatment, and even to the crematorium. In China, where can you avoid having to fight [for scarce resources]? Where can you avoid having to have special privileges [power] in order to get preferential treatment? In this world where living is the first rule of survival [looking out for oneself?], order is nothing but a fart [meaningless].”

The reasoning seems sound, such a smash-and-grab mentality is evident in countries where citizens live with disorder day-in day-out. It is more sound, and empathetic, than the majority of comments by non-Chinese writers who seem to put lack of manners down to some kind of innate psychological flaw brought on by, and belonging to, all people being born in the wrong place: China. The message we are getting from much of the Thai media these days concerning Chinese tourists is not one of contemplative response to actions considered bad; it’s more attuned to dramatizing events, and later reporting about knee-jerk initiatives to quell the wave of Chinese misbehavior.

As Chiang Mai CityNews editor when the Chinese invasion first occurred, mainly in Chiang Mai following the release of China’s biggest blockbuster, ‘Lost in Thailand’ (filmed in Chiang Mai), our Thai stringer would send me images and some text depicting negative Chinese behavior. These stories came almost weekly, throughout the year. The reports themselves were more gossip than news, but the response to the events was interesting. Local authorities were beset in those days with the challenge of preventing Chinese teenagers from kissing at local beauty spots, just as police were lately on the lookout for perpetrators acting irresponsible at temples so they could force them to study Thai etiquette. For years I had witnessed foreigners of various nationalities breaking Thai taboos in the most extreme ways, driving recklessly, necking in shopping malls, going commando on Thai beaches, drunkenly insulting locals in night markets, pubs, bookshops, often exhibiting the embodiment of what-not-to-do-in-Thailand, yet these breaches of the Do’s and Don’ts long chapter in the Lonely Planet were evidently hardly ever, if at all, newsworthy. And so it has been with suspicion and circumspection that I have followed the criticism of Thailand’s least appreciated and most valued tourists.

While there is no doubt queuing etiquette in China may leave something to be desired, as it does in other densely populated countries such as India, much of the vitriol towards Chinese tourists I believe is less related to ‘offense’, as it is to racism, and also a resentment that might have been catalyzed upon China’s economic boom and its growing number of nouveau riche. If you take into account the main sources of indignation towards the Chinese tourist, each event on its own seems like a rather paltry affair. So why the brouhaha? Could it be that the hysteria surrounding this ever-developing phenomenon, not just in Thailand, but worldwide, is a fashioning of spite towards a country that economically is in the right place to be bullied? Just as the ‘loud American’ had for so many years been lambasted and laughed at, has our focus now turned to another target that is enjoying economic prosperity?

Even though Thailand is reportedly the second most dangerous country to drive in, Chinese tourists have come under attack by Thai authorities for not being able to drive safely. The reckless driving charge is one to be taken seriously, as it should be to all tourists driving in Thailand, but after an accident this week involving a Chinese driver and a Thai motorcyclist, which resulted in the Thai rider’s death, it’s almost certain that this incident will breed more contempt for the Chinese, when it’s just another unfortunate incident on Thailand’s brutal roads.

Not flushing the toilet is also something every tourist might take seriously, or talking too loud in public, or even letting the kids piddle when there’s no toilet near, but these are not only Chinese-style misdemeanors, as much as the Thai and global press sees it that way. Former Thailand resident and journalist Andrew Drummond had to leave Thailand this year because of threats to his life and his children’s lives after bravely reporting on the activities of numerous foreign criminals that have worked with almost impunity in Thailand for decades, but you will not find any part of the Thai media writing about these foreign invaders who have done much more damaging things in Thailand than befouling toilet seats with excrement. Instances of Western arrogance and exceptionalism can be seen daily in any of Thailand’s tourist areas, but no one cares to video them, send them to news agencies, or put them up on YouTube.

Marauding foreigners in some of Thailand’s so-called dens of iniquity rarely make the headlines of newspapers, and the very out-in-the-open taboo-breaking, sometimes barbaric, often illegal activities of British, American, French, Japanese, etc, tourists don’t become viral videos. Films are sometimes made, but they don’t become the subject of press scrutiny, go viral, or compel the Thai authorities to clamp-down and write educational brochures. The Chinese are committing some of the least harmful offenses ever to make front page news in Thailand, and the second page of Western tabloids, which is baffling, unless we permit ourselves to believe racism is flourishing in Thailand, and abroad, and the average consumer seems to enjoy a sense of superiority over the world’s fastest growing nation.

About the author:
James Austin
is a journalist and fiction writer living in Thailand.