An American tourist in China recently tried to tip a bellboy who carried his bags up to his hotel room, but the young man refused the gratuity.
"I am a socialist," he said. "I cannot take this money."
A Western businessman at a Beijing hotel coffee shop pressed a few bills into the hands of a young waitress. She politely refused, explaining, "We don't accept tips in China."
These two were obeying China's ban on tipping, but many of their colleagues in the tourism industry are not.
Tipping in South
Foreigners visiting southern China say that tipping is widely accepted there, where proximity to Hong Kong and distance from the capital make enforcement of the ban more lax. In Canton, taxi drivers regularly pocket change rather than return it, and bellboys on occasion wait expectantly with open palms.
Tipping, considered a bourgeois practice, has always been banned in Communist China. Instead, people in the service industry are supposed to work hard to "serve the people," a motto prominently displayed across the country.
Reports last summer that China was prepared to lift the ban on gratuities--or was unofficially sanctioning tipping--brought quick denials from tourism officials.
Calling the practice an "unhealthy tendency," an unidentified spokesman for the National Tourism Administration was quoted in the state-run People's Daily as saying: "Our attitude is clear, resolute: We must strictly ban in tourism activities sales commissions for private gain and tipping."
The agency announced in August that tourism personnel who violated the ban faced fines of up to three times the value of what they accept in tips or dismissal from their jobs. In serious cases, violators face legal action.
The state Bureau of Travel and Tourism said that no information was available on numbers of employees who have been punished under the new regulation.
Some hotels post signs that gratuities are forbidden, and all add a 10% or 15% service charge to hotel bills.
In the Hotel Beijing-Toronto's bar and three restaurants, four or five customers daily--usually Americans--offer tips, said Jeffrey Y. C. Lui, manager of the bars and restaurants.
All the hotel's employees have been trained to explain that tipping is forbidden by state law and hotel regulations.
If one of Lui's employees is caught taking a tip, a note of misconduct appears on his record and his salary and bonus are cut. Two misconducts are grounds for dismissal, Lui said. Other hotels in Beijing have similar regulations.
Lui makes periodic spot checks of his employees, and in the three years of the hotel's operation has never caught anyone accepting a tip.
"That isn't to say it hasn't happened, though," he said.
Tips Turned In
If a customer insists on giving a tip or if the money is left behind on the table, it is turned over to the Bureau of Travel and Tourism.
Many Chinese disagree with the system.
The official English-language China Daily recently cautiously endorsed tipping on its opinion page, saying that hotel staff and people in the service industry should not be expected to smile for free.
Chinese employees in tourist-class hotels have questioned why their counterparts in the United States and Hong Kong are allowed to accept tips while they cannot.
Tips as Motivators
Many foreigners say tipping would improve the surly service they often encounter in China and serve as an incentive for lazy employees.
"This is a great power to motivate people to improve the service standard, because this is directly connected with their pocket money," Lui said.
Tourism officials disagree.
"Giving tips does not help improve the quality of service," He Ruoquan, deputy director of the Tourism Administration, told the China Daily. "It brings nothing but a tendency to expect more and more money from guests.
"And tourists will be treated differently according to how big a tip they can offer."
Lui says that China is not likely to change its policy anytime soon. But, he adds, for the foreigner who encounters exceptionally good service in China and feels he must reward it somehow, a small gift like a pack of candy is sometimes allowed.