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CommentInsight & Opinion

The case of the missing hordes of misbehaving Chinese tourists

Paul Stapleton blames Hong Kong stereotype on bias and misperception

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 30 September, 2013, 11:06pm

The criticism of mainland Chinese tourists has now spread well beyond Hong Kong, with stories about their apparent bad behaviour coming from Vancouver, Paris, Seoul and the Maldives, just to name a few. We've all heard the stories of mainland mothers letting their toddlers relieve themselves in public. And news items about mainlanders committing a cultural indiscretion or jumping a queue frequently land on the "most read" web pages of local newspapers. Mobile phones often capture these images and the story goes viral through social networks.

Recently, stories have appeared asking why mainland tourists are so rude and, suddenly, a mere supposition turns into a fact to be explained. Lost in this cacophony of stereotyping, however, are some fundamental statistics as well as a simple cognitive error.

With the number coming, it is remarkable there are so few instances of rude behaviour

Last year, Hong Kong hosted 35 million mainland visitors, equivalent to the entire population of Canada. This number represents about 72 per cent of the total number of arrivals. Arrivals from no other country come close, although, significantly, Taiwan, whose nationals speak the same language as most mainlanders and are largely indistinguishable to a casual observer, comes second at about 4 per cent. Thus, if a visitor to Hong Kong behaves badly, that person would in most cases be identified as a mainlander.

It is not only this reason that has led to the unfair labelling of mainland tourists, however; a cognitive error is also to blame. Simply stated, it is a thinking mistake called the "availability heuristic" that is operating in full force here.

Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman describes it best in his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow: "People tend to assess the relative importance of issues by the ease with which they are retrieved from memory - and this is largely determined by the extent of coverage in the media."

As an experiment, I asked a group of my students to visit New Town Plaza in Sha Tin and make comments on the clientele there. In their reports, many made note of the large number of mainland shoppers. Their evidence included the frequency with which they heard Putonghua being spoken. They also mentioned the large number of shoppers who were wheeling suitcases.

However, when I asked whether any of them had taken a count of the ratio of Putonghua speakers to non-Putonghua speakers, none had. Likewise, no one had made a systematic count of the ratio of those with suitcases to those without. Here, we witness the availability heuristic. What stands out - in this case, "Putonghua" or "suitcases" - looms large and overwhelms the majority local population in the background.

My own rough count of suitcases at the same locale recently confirmed this. Sure, many people had them, but for each one of those, I counted dozens more without a case.

In effect, a few mainlanders do behave badly, just like a small minority from any country do. But when nationals of other countries behave badly here, there is no strong local stereotype available to label them, so the action doesn't make the news.

Rather than isolating a few bad apples from the mainland and then tarring them all with the same brush, we should appreciate that, with the overwhelming number coming across our border, it is remarkable there are so few instances of rude behaviour. In fact, the few viral photos and videos of "mainlanders" acting up are the exceptions to prove the rule.

The public's mistake, as well as the media's, is to make much more of this than necessary.

Paul Stapleton is an associate professor at the Hong Kong Institute of Education

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This article is now closed to comments

Relji Joseph
I believe it is very stereotype and racist to claim Chinese visitors are rude, I'm not a Chinese person , yet I feel it wrong when I hear the generalisation in Hong Kong.China was a very closed society till recently with their people having no clue what's the culture or the system overseas. A person behaves and learns from the society he grows up and every country has its bad side. I honestly believe most countries became " civilised" after a western country invaded it. There is a vast difference between a civilised person and a ordinary person. One doesn't become civilised unless taught in such a way , unfortunately China, India and many countries are a long way to go. Back in 90's it was the Arab's which everyone had complains about , now its Chinese. I think every time a community or culture opens up to the rest of the world, we have stereotypes holding them back. I think we can be better than just generalising a certain race as good or bad.
caractacus
Fair enough comment.
I have actually seen Hong Kong Chinese on many occasions here and abroad being rude, inconsiderate, loud and vulgar, i.e. doing exactly the same things they accuse mainlanders of doing.
So Paul Stapleton's empirical observations are actually a reflection of the double standards and self centred conceit of Hong Kongers.
superdx
Why does SCMP only provide a single perspective in their opinion pieces? Where's the counterpoint? The opposing view?
Balanced articles SCMP, or have you already become People's Daily? Seriously reconsidering my subscription.
BruceTheLee
Do you say this about every article on every media?
I don't see too many articles on any media outlet that do what you suggest.
mercedes2233
I don't agree with the writer. We are not biased. Before the influx of visitors from China, children relieving themselves in public were unheard of, as are rude behavior such as when a tour coach was not as prompt as expected, and the visitors demanded a huge penalty payout, or these visitors pounding on airline desks after the recent storm halted all flights. We have seen film clips of the reactions of stranded travelers by national groups. The Taiwanese were disappointed but dignified. Only the mainland Chinese were aggressive. I am also uncertain of the writer's teaching methods. Not having prescribed what students were to look for, they obviously had to guess the teacher's intentions, and in their minds ruled out for example the counting of people wearing red, women wearing slacks, people with or without children/Filipino maid etc. I don't know what that exclusion tells us.
reubenm
"Before the influx of visitors from China, children relieving themselves in public were unheard of"? In my 19 years in Hong Kong, barely a week passed in which I did not encounter locals **** into stormdrains and performing various personal hygiene tasks on public transport. Hong Kong citizens are as loud, pushy and unhygienic as the mainlanders they decry.
BruceTheLee
@mercedes2233,
That wasn't the point of the article. What the author is trying to say is we let the few dictate our judgement of the many
.
If that 35 million were like your description, things would have been very different. HK would be literally covered in faeces.
oasis
It's an academic viewpoint, and has merit. From a social viewpoint though overreacting has the benefit of pointing out an issue and pushes the crowd to change.
tomonday
I don't mind the mainlanders here on holiday, they makes the economy thrive, create jobs and so on. Yeah they misbehave but so does local HKers and other tourist (Australians for example, loud and arrogant). It's the jealousy of local HKers that makes me sad. And when HKers travel (esp to Thailand & China), they are the same loud and arrogant tourist. Guys, we are all the same, GOD didn't makes us different, only you see things differently.
smileavenue
Yes you're right, long live the mainland Chinese tourist.

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