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Charm school for government officials
By Tang Min (China Daily)
Updated: 2004-04-23 22:04

As part of major efforts to improve the quality of services provided by civil servants, a growing number of Chinese cities are organizing etiquette training programmes to help local officials become familiar with international social practices at public events. Tang Min discovers how the training has started transforming the civil service.

"Who will you introduce to visiting foreign guests first, Zhang, director of the bureau, or Li, a division director of the bureau?" asked Li Xing, a professor with the Public Affairs Department of the Shenyang Public Administration Academy.

Sitting in front of him was a small class of about 20 officials from various municipal government departments in Shenyang, capital city of Northeast China's Liaoning Province.

A middle-aged official offered his opinion immediately. "Of course, Zhang," he said in a slightly arrogant manner.

"It seems I had asked too easy a question, recalls Li.

Of course, the seemingly easy question was not at all as simple as it appeared and served to prove a point. When Li told the self-congratulating official that his answer was wrong, the man was visibly shocked, which was the exact reaction Li had been looking for.

"The right answer should be Libecause those of the highest rank are always the last ones to be introduced in line with international practice," Li said.

This lesson was designed to help the students break away from what they thought was common practice and open themselves to another way of thinking.

Li then began his first lecture for the three-month international etiquette training course, which kicked off last month. Since then, he has managed to arouse further interest in his students step by step.

"There really is much to learn and it is a serious course," he says.

Organized by the Shenyang municipal government, the training programme stipulates that officials who fail the etiquette course will be given an administrative warning.

Even without this threat of penalty, officials see the necessity of the programme.

For instance, the latest version of an etiquette book made available last month consists of six chapters including dozens of sections about most aspects of civil servant work.

"(Before participating in the programme) I had never known the way I tied my shoe laces might affect how my foreign counterparts see me," says Yang Jianping, a municipal official from Shenyang, who used to be very confident about his appearance and manners.

For a promising city like Shengyang, which has been dedicating more efforts to attract investment from outside to help it become the "regional centre of Northeast China", brushing up on manners and improving the service provided by civil servants may appear to be less important than building skyscrapers.

Need for etiquette training

If a city cannot continue to attract investors through preferential polices such as lower land prices and tax exemption, the trust the local government can elicit among investors will prove essential.

"If two cities offer roughly the same conditions for investors, which do you think the investor will pick, the one with efficient officials providing predictable standardized services or the one with slack staff working casually?" asked Li.

Other cities have also launched similar training programmes. Among them are Beijing, Shanghai and Qingdao in East China's Shandong Province.

This trend will surely spread to other Chinese cities, says Tunku Naquiyuddin, board chairman of the esteemed Hong Kong International Lifestyle Academy. This is particularly true as China has joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) and will host more large-scale international events, such as the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing and the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai, and play a more active role on the world stage.

Naquiyuddin's academy is expected to offer etiquette training to civil servants in Beijing next month.

The capital city kicked off a similar training programme for local officials in March, but the academy believes it can provide better training in view of its international background and rich experience.

A number of local governments, including Beijing, have contacted the academy, displaying their interest in the training.

At this point, the Chinese mainland doesn't have professional training teams to cope with these newly emerging needs.

China is a country boasting a history of thousands of years and has its own understanding and practice of etiquette. That is why many Chinese, though well educated, would feel uneasy in dealing with their foreign counterparts. Therefore, classes from the academy teaching internationally accepted rules to bridge gaps among people from different cultural backgrounds can be of help.

Etiquette index evaluation

But Shenyang is the only Chinese city so far to have introduced "etiquette" in its annual evaluation system of civil servants

Evaluation standards will vary according to the different positions held.

"The requirements for us will be simpler than for those working in the foreign affairs department. Basically, we are required to treat citizens coming to us for consultationsin a welcoming manner and provide them with prompt replies without passing the buck under any excuse," says Yang.

Zheng Min, an official with the Shanghai Municipal Personnel Training Centre, says this kind of etiquette training doesn't differ much from traditional training in professional skills, such as computers or English.

Like other training programmes, the etiquette training is also meant to help the overall quality of civil servants, he adds.

Last month, the centre began offering a new training course in etiquette, along with a number of others in such fields as comparative studies of Chinese and Western cultures, Chinese literature and music appreciation.

Over 20,000 civil servants in Shanghai will be required to take 10 courses from a list of 20 by the end of next year.

"Etiquette is showing the outside world what you have inside. While our special etiquette course can pass on some quick tips, inner improvement of a person takes some time to happen and can only be reached through more comprehensive efforts," Zheng says.

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