Tourists Behaving Badly: China's Image Problem


As China’s economy grows rapidly, a fast-growing number of Chinese tourists are traveling overseas, often amazing the world with their purchasing power. Shopping malls, department stores, and luxury boutiques in Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan and even European countries are quite often crowded with Chinese visitors for whom, it seems, price is no object.

However, media reports also tell some unpleasant stories about Chinese tourists. Although these instances are not representative, some of the most egregious behaviors are thought-provoking. In the past week, there have been two incidents involving Chinese tourists in Thailand. Last Thursday, a Thai AirAsia flight en route to Nanjing had to return to Bangkok after a Chinese couple became verbally abusive and poured hot water on a flight attendant. Then on Saturday, a group of Chinese tourists pushed over protective barricades at the Grand Palace in Bangkok. Though in the minority, these Chinese tourists have seriously damaged the international image of China and the Chinese people. Reflection on these incidents can spark a further discussion of China’s position in the international community.

First of all, there’s a striking difference in media reports on official visits by Chinese leaders and stories about ordinary Chinese tourists. Whenever Chinese national leaders travel around the globe, Chinese and overseas media reports are mostly positive. As China’s economy expands, China’s national status rises and China gains more power over international narratives while also earning more international respect (though of course also causing some concern). This is only natural, given China’s size, population, and economic power. By contrast, however, media outlets are also very keen to cover minor issues and conflicts involving Chinese tourists. Comparing these types of reports, there seems to be a gap between China’s national status as an emerging great power and some Chinese tourists’ irresponsible behavior.

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The reason for this gap has been discussed abundantly in Chinese media and academia. However, from the perspective of international relations, this issue provides a way of picturing the awkward situation China faces as it tries to define its position in the international community. China’s national power is growing fast, but it has few true friends. As the 2013 Blue Book of Asia-Pacific, published by Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), put it, most neighboring countries’ view China as “near but not dear” (近而不亲). Viewed in this way, it’s perhaps unsurprising that China’s powerful national image comes combined with a somewhat negative public image. When it comes to public diplomacy, concrete and specific stories of individuals, even ordinary tourists, can convey a nation’s image more directly and deeply than diplomatic rhetoric, particularly when there is a high frequency of exposure of inappropriate behaviors.

The fact is that tourists from many different countries behave badly. After a Chinese child etched his name on an ancient Egyptian artwork in 2013, an Egyptian guide pointed out that other languages like English, Russian, and Korean were also found on those ancient monuments. But China, as a rapidly emerging economy that promises to be a responsible great power but faces suspicions from its neighbors, is especially vulnerable to these incidents. Given the international climate, the behavior of Chinese tourists is ripe for media coverage and could even cause long-term damages to China’s national image and thus its national interests.

It may take a long time for China to overcome the contrast between its strong national image and the boorish deeds of individual tourists. From a soft power standpoint, the rise of the Chinese people is much more important than the rise of China.

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