BEIJING -- Many foreigners visiting China are often shocked by the rudeness of Chinese here, particularly to each other.
With the huge influx of tourists and other foreign guests in recent years, the service personnel who cater to foreigners have become more courteous. But the same is not true for ordinary Chinese.
This is particularly evident when it comes to using the telephone. Basic telephone manners are nonexistent. Making a telephone call in China often makes you want to reach out and hit someone.
As an official Chinese newspaper acknowledged in a front-page article last month, "Anyone who can talk can use the telephone. But one can't really use the telephone without learning telephone etiquette."
Chinese almost never identify themselves when they answer the phone, whether they are at home or in the office. The callers also do not first identify themselves when asking to speak to someone.
If the person being sought is out, the caller will be told, "Not here," and the phone will be hung up. Message-taking is a concept that has yet to come to the Middle Kingdom.
The newspaper Economic Daily lamented, "Rude answers such as 'Not here,' and rude acts like banging down the phone do make people crazy. Questions like 'Who are you?' and a reply of 'None of your business' can start a quarrel over the phone."
Access to telephones is limited here. About 25,000 new telephones were installed last year in Beijing -- a record high, the newspaper reported. But with a city population of 10 million and with 163,000 telephone users, "this figure looks meager," the article pointed out.
The demand for telephone lines far exceeds supply. As a result, the quality of telephone lines suffers. It is not uncommon, for example, on some connections, to pick up programs from the state-run radio.
For long-distance calls that require the assistance of an operator, matters are worse. The impatient tone of the operators can leave one fuming "for quite some time," the newspaper pointed out.
Reports of bad personal service have prompted some cities to action. The southern city of Guangzhou (formerly Canton) last month launched a smile campaign urging residents to be friendly and salespeople and waiters to be polite to customers.
"The sun is shining. We should use a smile to build a golden bridge among us" are the words of a smile campaign theme song.
"Everyone knows about the campaign," Zhong Maishi, vice director general of the Guangdong province television station, was quoted as saying in a Hong Kong newspaper. "People are definitely smiling more than before."
IN RECENT YEARS, the main thoroughfares of the capital have begun to look more attractive. Trees, grass and flower beds have been planted as part of a major effort to make the city greener.
City gardeners have planted more than 1.2 million roses along the broad avenues and in streetcorner flowerbeds, the official New China News Agency proudly announced recently.
Residents say the presence of trees has helped a little in the fight against the dust and sand that coats everything here.
Beijing's average dust content per cubic meter is 500 milligrams, higher than in many other world capitals, Chinese environmental officials have said. The country's standard maximum is 150 milligrams of dust per cubic meter.
A FEW YEARS AGO, few Chinese women wore their hair any other way except in braids. Now, braids are nowhere to be seen. Women of all ages sport several kinds of hair styles.
But the Chinese are not quite ready for the "Chopstick Perm," creation of Singapore-born hairdresser Allan Soh. Soh, who has a salon in London and is famous for styling the hair of celebrities such as actress Koo Stark, was in Beijing recently to demonstrate his way of perming hair using chopsticks, a variation of the old Chinese method of using bamboo sticks and horse's urine to curl hair.
After the demonstration, Soh and several women went to have their picture taken before the enormous portrait of Mao Tse-Tung that overlooks Tiananmen Square. Chinese authorities became concerned.
A crowd had gathered to gape at the women. One of them, European model Joanne Lewis, was wearing "a very sexy, black, strapless evening gown," Soh later told a Hong Kong reporter. Another woman, a local Chinese hotel employe, had hundreds of chopsticks in her hair.
After several minutes of photographing, the police detained Soh, the two women and Soh's assistant. About an hour later, they let them go with a warning not to repeat such "outrageous behavior."