AN awkward silence followed as an American businessman paid his taxi driver and waited for his change. The fare was 19.10 yuan (about HK$25.70) and the businessman had handed over 20 yuan. But the driver did not seem in the slightest bit interested in finding the right change. ''He just looked at me as if to say 'You really want your 90 cents?','' the businessman said. ''His whole demeanour was really condescending, like I must be really poor, from the Soviet Union or something.'' Although the giving and receiving of gratuities is still officially frowned upon in China, more and more people are not only accepting tips but are actually expecting them. And it is not just taxi drivers who are pocketing the change. Waiters, bell boys, porters. In fact anyone who would normally expect a tip in the West will quite happily accept what is on offer in China. The same businessman's vice-president, for example, was in Beijing last week, staying at one of the city's most prestigious hotels. He rang house-keeping to get his shoes shined, a normally complimentary service. It took the hotel employee about two minutes to shine the only slightly soiled leather shoes but the vice-president dug out two 10-yuan notes which were duly pocketed by the young shoeshine boy without so much as a bat of the eyelid. In the past, it has mainly been out-of-towners such as the vice-president and members of foreign tour groups who have been responsible for dispensing gratuities, or ''little expenses'' as they are known in China. Long-term foreign residents who would normally tip at home, generally resist the temptation in Beijing but now it is increasingly the local Beijing residents who are doing the tipping. The boom in the private economy has seen the emergence of a new class of young entrepreneurs who have money to burn and frequently do. One such spendthrift was spotted recently at an upmarket karaoke lounge handing over a US$100 note to the waitress in order to ensure that his party had access to the microphone whenever they wanted it. In this particular case, the waitress did look rather startled but she kept the money nonetheless and sure enough, the microphone was always available when required. Likewise, staff at a highly popular Cantonese restaurant in Shanghai frequently get 50 yuan and 100 yuan notes pressed into their hands by young business types in the hope of securing a good table and attentive service during their meal. Tipping is becoming as much a part of the lifestyle of Beijing's rich and heinous as expensive designer suits and mobile telephones. ''People try to outdo each other in extravagance,'' one young entrepreneur said. ''Sometimes it gets really ridiculous.'' In many respects, Beijing's flash young business types are behaving like ''goodfellas'' from the Italian mob, which, given the dubious background of many private entrepreneurs, is not so surprising. They do not just tip, they deliberately over-tip. The reasoning behind such extravagance is not only to impress but to intimidate. People seeing someone handing over a US$100 note are supposed to think ''Wow, this guy must really be something''. It should be stressed, however, that tipping is still largely confined to the affluent few but as the private sector economy continues to develop, not only will the number of people who can afford to pay gratuities increase but the number of outlets willing to accept them will grow accordingly. As more and more people realise they can get a better service by tipping then the institution will inevitably grow. And if the private sector continues to expand as fast as it has over the past two years, it will not be too long before tipping, in the big cities at least, becomes as commonplace as it is in Hongkong.