Blowing Water

France’s butter crisis shows China is struggling to melt hearts on the world stage

Although China has growing appetite for foreign dairy products, the demand has not come from one country alone

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 November, 2017, 4:14pm
UPDATED : Monday, 27 November, 2017, 9:51pm

“Don’t take our butter,” a French friend told me jokingly last week at breakfast.

I am visiting Normandy, one of two historically famous butter-producing regions in France; the other is Brittany.

China has been blamed for France’s butter shortage, with the average retail price of the spread going up by at least 35 per cent so far this year – in the country with the highest per capita rate of butter consumption.

I’m feeling the crisis first-hand as my host no longer serves butter lavishly along with bread. Now I only get foil-wrapped mini portions.

With insufficient European dairy production, worsened by some unscrupulous producers hoarding supply, as well as growing global demand, the butter shortage in France is not expected to end any time soon.

Although China has a growing appetite for foreign milk products the demand has not come from one country alone, but China seems to get blamed for many things.

Not only is it accused of depleting the global supply of all types of products – including butter – goods and even luxury items, it is also blamed for exporting droves of loud, rude and brash tourists.

China may be a mega economic and political power, but its soft power doesn’t seem to grow in parallel with its increasing hard power. Money and political brawn has not helped China buy love on the world stage.

The fundamental issue here is China has a serious image problem overseas that cannot be resolved by exporting a few cute pandas. The solution lies in its citizens gripped by wanderlust.

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As a regular visitor to the small town of Avranches in Normandy that has a population of around 9,000 – about a quarter of the population in Taikoo Shing, a middle-class residential complex in the eastern part of Hong Kong – I have found myself becoming an unlikely unofficial ambassador of Hong Kong and China, due to my presence as, possibly, the only Chinese visitor here.

As a result, I have become quite self-aware of what I say and do because different cultures have different customs and Chinese parents often try to instil in their childrenyup heung chui juk which is the Cantonese equivalent to “When in Rome”.

We all know that “manners maketh man”, which means our mannerisms and characteristics make us who we are and people often judge us by our conduct because without these standards, we would lose our civility. But we also need to understand that good manners and etiquette take time to develop and require lots of practice and reinforcement.

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More than 30 years ago, when I started travelling frequently to Europe, I often cringed when I came across Hongkongers because they tended to be loud and pushy. And the worse part was they often travelled en masse, which only encouraged their herd mentality and bad behaviour.

When I was asked about my nationality while overseas I said I was Chinese, because I wanted to dissociate myself from Hongkongers. It has taken at least 30 years for Hong Kong tourists to behave in a more acceptable manner.

Self-awareness, like good manners, comes with time. One of the main reasons mainland Chinese tourists behave the way they do is because they lack self-awareness. They don’t understand, or are not aware, of how other people perceive their behaviour because they are not used to dealing with people from outside their country for an extended period of time.

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Nowadays when I travel, I identify myself first as Chinese and then specify I live in Hong Kong. Telling people I am Chinese does not automatically make me an ill-behaved rowdy Chinese tourist; it’s what I do and how I behave.

Manners maketh man holds true at all times. Our fellow Hong Kong citizens didn’t turn into well-behaved tourists overnight. It has taken them decades. I am just doing my bit as a Chinese individual travelling overseas to help project a positive image of our country. If it can improve the soft image of China or the Chinese in general, even just changing the perception of one foreigner at a time, then why not do it? It’s definitely worth making the effort.

Luisa Tam is a senior editor at the Post