Soft Power Meets Social Management: New Tourism Law to Punish Unruly Travelers Overseas

Publication: China Brief Volume: 13 Issue: 21

Uncivilized tourism: "Ding Jinhao was here"

Passed last April, the new China Tourism Law came into effect on October 1, in time for this year’s Chinese National Day “golden week” holiday. While the main thrust of the legislation is greater regulation of the domestic and outbound tourism industry and squeezing out unscrupulous operators, the law breaks new ground by legislating requirements for civilized tourist behavior.

Following a long run of bad international press about poorly behaved Chinese tourists, the new law comes as a decisive move by Beijing to reign in its unruly globetrotting citizens. It also serves as implied official acknowledgement that the negative press has hurt China’s “soft power” efforts to bolster its reputation among the world’s publics.

Furthermore, the law includes an ambitious effort to extend China’s social control strategies beyond its borders, providing a legal basis for Beijing to manage its citizens abroad just as does at home. Failure to tow the official line overseas can now land a tourist in hot water back home.

Bad Guests: China’s Outbound Tourism

In the several years since the Beijing Olympics, China has emerged as the world’s largest source of international tourists. From just over 20 million outbound tourists in 2008, over 70 million Chinese undertook international travel in 2011. For the past decade, China has been the fastest-growing tourism source market in the world. And the numbers have been matched by spending. Chinese travelers spent a record $102 billion on international tourism in 2012, making China the highest ranked country in terms of tourism expenditure.

As the number of Chinese nations touring the world has increased, so too has concern about their poor etiquette and bad manners, a topic which has engaged media both abroad and at home. Despite this, Beijing has been slow to respond to the educational and public relations challenge posed by its travelling citizens. While official sources have paid lip service to the idea of outbound tourists as “image ambassadors,” their reputational role has been largely overlooked. Outbound tourism has thus constituted a major “soft power” blind spot as the poor international reputation of Chinese tourists increasingly undermines official international public relations gains.

When a Nanjing schoolboy etched the words “Ding Jinhao was here” (Ding Jinhao dao ci yi you) on a 3,500 year-old Luxor temple sculpture, he could not have imagined the magnitude of the backlash he would provoke. Just hours after an image of the graffiti was posted on micro-blogging site Sina Weibo on May 24, it had been forwarded more than 83,000 times and had received over 11,000 comments (Qianjiang wanbao, May 26). Within a day, Ding’s school’s website was breached by vigilante hackers and subsequently rendered inaccessible, and his parents approached national media to offer an unreserved apology.  With merciless speed, the controversy quickly entered Chinese lexicon as the “Ding Jinhao incident.”

Widely reported in the international media, the act of vandalism received heavy criticism from social media users globally. But the heaviest criticism was from outraged Chinese netizens. The incident also sparked an online firestorm of criticism aimed more broadly at the “uncivilized” behaviors of Chinese tourists (Modern Express, May 26). Social media users and press outlets were quick to list other incidents that had reflected poorly on China’s tourists. There was the case of the Chinese cigarette butt floating in the waters off Palau, coral stealing in the Maldives, foot bathing in the Louvre pool, photo scrums in the lavender fields of Provence and countless incidents involving public urination and other indiscretions (Xinhua, July 24). According to one Chinese online survey, respondents voted the six most uncivilized tourist behaviors as littering, disrespecting local laws and customs, being loud, queue jumping, removing shoes and socks in public and getting into disputes (Xinhua, August 20).

On August 19, leading Chinese travel service Ctrip published the results of its survey of 90 million users into uncivilized tourist behavior. The findings showed that respondents believed that the behavior of individuals and the state was important in shaping a good national image and enhancing the country’s soft power (Xinhua, August 20).

Much of the recent media and online chatter argued that China’s tourist etiquette problems are damaging the country’s international image (Xinhua, August 31). Just two weeks before the Ding Jinhao incident dominated news headlines, Vice Premier Wang Yang slammed the poor behavior of China’s tourists as a soft power liability.

Good Hosts: China’s Inbound Tourism

In time for the implementation of the new law, China’s National Tourism Administration (CNTA) in September issued an illustrated 64-page Guidebook for Civilized Tourism. It had been seven years since the publication of the previous edition. The 2006 guidebook had been published as part of a massive campaign to promote etiquette and politeness in time for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, when a wave of international media and tourists were expected to expose China to the world like never before. At that time, the focus was squarely on the behavior of citizens within China’s borders rather than those travelling beyond them.

Years before the first foreign guests took up their seats in Beijing’s Birds Nest stadium, “Welcome the Olympics, stress civilization and cultivate a new style” (ying aoyun jiang wenming shu xinfeng) had become the catch-cry of preparations for the games. Indeed, a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Beijing Committee publication had called for raising moral standards and implementing of an “Olympic Action Plan” as far back as 2001 (Beijing Evening News, December 27, 2001). Hosting the Olympics created a need—or, as Anne-Marie Brady has argued, an excuse—for a sustained public morality propaganda campaign (The China Quarterly, March 2009).

As the Olympics drew near, a proliferation of propaganda activities promoted civilized behaviors such as queuing, placing rubbish in bins, volunteerism and not spitting. At the neighborhood level, community “compacts” provided enforceable guidelines stipulating correct behaviors not otherwise covered by the state legal apparatus, such as looking after the environment, stressing hygiene, and avoiding “unhealthy” tendencies such as feudal superstitions. The “Civilized driving compact,” for example, launched January 2008 and endorsed by the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games, called on Beijing’s drivers to “create a good environment” for the Games (Shenyang Daily, January 23, 2008). Another, the “Construction workers Olympics civilization compact,” prescribed behavioral standards for migrant workers involved in the pre-Olympics building boom (, March 6, 2007). In the lead-up to and during the Games, compliance with these compacts was monitored and enforced like never before.

For the duration of the Olympics, Beijing’s migrant workers were packed off back to their hometowns, and tougher visa restrictions kept out potential foreign troublemakers. City blocks surrounding the Olympic Park were sanitized of nightclubs and other venues of questionable repute. Beijing’s remaining residents and visitors were kept under watch by an army of over 600,000 Olympics security/surveillance volunteers. It was, writes Jules Boykoff, “a Foucaultian fantasy, a panoptic web whereby people policed themselves while also policing each other” (Celebration Capitalism and the Olympic Games: Routledge, 2013). Even while attending Olympic events, spectators were urged to modify their behavior by shouting an officially endorsed “civilized cheer.”

A similar approach to promoting civilized behavior would be reprised in Shanghai as it prepared to host the 2010 World Expo. The “World Expo civilization compact” (Shibo wenming gongyue) promoted civilized driving, stopping and queuing and attempted to persuade residents not to wear their pajamas in public, aiming to put forward a civilized image of the World Expo host city (Xinhua, April 1, 2010). Activities such as “customer service day” (held on the 5th of each month) carried out under the “Welcome the Expo, stress civilization and cultivate a new style” banner stressed the importance of playing the good host.

Both the 2008 Beijing Olympics and 2010 Shanghai World Expo were widely regarded as qualified soft power wins for China, and both events have contributed to China’s rapid rise as an international tourist destination. In 2012, China received 57.7 million tourist arrivals, up from 31.2 million in 2000, making it the third-most visited country behind France and the United States.

But playing host is one thing, and playing guest is evidently something quite different.

Extending the Long Arm of the Law Overseas

During a State Council teleconference on the new China Tourism Law, Vice Premier Wang Yang slammed the poor standing of China’s tourists, stating that their uncivilized behavior and poor “quality and breeding” was harming China’s image (Xinhua, May 16). As was the case with certain aspects of its pre-Olympics civilizing campaign, the new China Tourism Law constitutes a coercive shadow to Beijing’s international charm efforts.

Article 41 of the new law stipulates that tour guides are to “abide by professional ethics, have respect for tourists” customs and religious beliefs, inform and explain to them norms of civilized behavior, guide tourists” healthy and civilized travel and discourage them from violating socially ethical behavior” (National Tourism Administration, April 26). Elsewhere, the legislation places responsibility squarely on tourists’ shoulders: “Tourists shall observe public order and respect social morality, respect local customs, cultural traditions and religious beliefs, care for tourism resources, protect the environment and abide by the norms of civilized tourist behavior.” Article 66 states that travel agencies will be allowed to revoke their contracts with tourists who “engage in activities that violate social ethics.”

The title of a Xinhua media report, “Enhancing soft power depends on hard boundaries,” describes the new law in terms of its role in regulating Chinese outbound tourists (August 28). It suggests that with the law, Beijing is building clear strictures around the role that Chinese tourists abroad play as “image ambassadors” of their country. But while tourists are being called to account, it appears that the onus will be on tour guides and operators to ensure compliant behavior from their clients. Tour operators arranging activities that breach laws or public morality, for example, can be fined up to 200,000 RMB ($32,900) or have their business license suspended. According to National Tourism Administration head Shao Qiwei, implementation of the new law “requires travel agencies, tour guides, tour leaders and tourists to consciously abide by regulated civilized behavior and guide tourists’ travel civilization" (Wenming wang).

Just how the new law will work in practice and to what extent it will be enforced by relevant tourism authorities is yet to be seen. After all, prior to the law “s existence, expectations relating to tourist behavior had already been prescribed in outbound travel guidelines and the “Chinese citizen domestic tourism civilization compact,” albeit to little evident effect. But with the law comes penalties, which will serve to promote increased compliance. Accordingly, it is likely that we will see an emerging quasi-compliance and surveillance dimension to the role of tour operators as they seek to keep their noses clean.

There is also the issue of the catch-all nature of the term wenming (civilized) within the Chinese policy and social management setting. Within its official-use definition are several elements that make it distinct from how the English term “civilized” is commonly understood. The various civilization compacts and awards systems operating in post-Mao China have tended to stipulate requirements reflecting official policy preoccupations of the time.  Consequentially, being “civilized” has invariably meant being patriotic, maintaining stability and national harmony, abiding by family planning (the one-child policy), working hard to get rich, loving the Party and changing established (“feudal” and “backward’) customs. “Civilization” is also closely liked to official discourse on “population quality” (renkou suzhi), which calls for “a correct political stand and correct lifestyle and consumption choices” (Pal Nyiri, China Journal, July 2006).

Given that “civilized behavior” and “civilized travel” are not defined in the new law, it may assumed that such terms inherit the catch-all characteristics of the term wenming, and will thus remain subject to shifting policy and political concerns about citizens’ behavior.


How enforceable will the new law’s vague behavioral stipulations be? What sanction would a future Ding Jinhao, his parents or his tour guide most likely face under the legislation? If “civilized” means having a “correct political stand,” what might the law mean for those expressing contrary views abroad?

As a response to the issue of poor tourist reputation, the law is late coming, and Beijing now faces an uphill battle to change what have become hardened international perceptions. Nevertheless, the law may well benefit China’s international public relations offensive in the long term, allowing Beijing to more effectively manage this grassroots—and more unruly—aspect of soft power it had hitherto ignored.

For Chinese tourists interested in the temporary freedoms associated with overseas travel, the new law means increased surveillance and the possibility of punishment. What happens on tour won’t necessarily stay on tour.