The last week of May was a rough one for teenager Ding Jinhao, who became the new favorite punching bag of thousands of Chinese netizens. On a vacation to Egypt, the youth had carved “Ding Jinhao was here” in Chinese on the walls of the ancient Luxor Temple. Another tourist posted a photo of his vandalism onto Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, on May 24.
Ding’s appalled compatriot wrote: “This was my saddest moment in Egypt. I was so embarrassed I wanted to hide my face…We tried using tissues to wipe away this shame, but it was useless, and we couldn’t use water. This is a 3,500 year old site!”
The picture went viral, garnering over 1,400 likes, 18,000 comments, and 96,000 retweets within five days. Weibo users, not known for being forgiving or sympathizing with wrongdoers, were quick to not only criticize the culprit, but also discover and publicize his identity, school, and city of residence. Much of the vitriol was about how Ding made China lose face. A Beijing advertising agency commented on its official Weibo account:
I feel shame knowing that it was my countryman who did this.
The intensity of the backlash suggests that it is more than just another online bandwagon. China’s people and government are greatly concerned about how they are perceived by outsiders. There is constant, palpable worry about whether the country is considered modern or cultured by others. Some of the Weibo posts responding to Ding’s actions were more introspective than hostile: “Whether you admit it or not, most of us are no better than Ding Jinhao,” sighed Miao Fei Xia, a Guangzhou resident. A netizen with the username Riding a Pig Through China is My Dream said: “Why is it that only Chinese tourists do this sort of thing? We need to rethink how we educate our people.”
These remarks highlight a deep-seated insecurity despite China’s successes in recent decades. Amidst the increases in their economic and political power around the world, many Chinese still see their people as lagging behind in the intangible elements of modernity, such as sophistication, etiquette, and tastefulness. Visit any major Chinese city, and it quickly becomes apparent that one of the key buzzwords in today’s China is wenming, meaning “civilized.”
Signs in public restrooms like the one above declare that standing close to urinals (to keep them cleaner) is the wenming thing to do. Announcements on buses inform passengers that letting pregnant women or the elderly sit first is the sign of a wenming society. The media instructs people on what is and isn’t wenming behavior. On May 29, Jiefang Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Party’s Shanghai committee, posted this story through Weibo: “An old woman in Shanghai was on the subway with her grandson, who stood on his seat to look outside. She placed some tissues on the seat first and said, ‘Don’t move your feet around and get it dirty.’ Passengers who board without buying tickets and litter all over the train, are you feeling ashamed?”
The preoccupation with being wenming is partly driven by the government. After the Ding Jinhao incident, the China National Tourism Administration issued guidelines on how to behave in a wenming manner when travelling abroad. Among other things, they ask Chinese tourists to avoid being overly loud, wait in lines patiently, and follow local rules. Another example is the “10 Do’s and 10 Don’ts” that were plastered throughout Beijing during the run-up to the 2008 Olympics. Do’s included obeying traffic regulations and keeping the city clean, while spitting and “running wildly” were discouraged.
There is a contradiction in how China sees itself relative to other countries. On one hand, it is a proud nation, particularly after the economic reforms of the past three decades. On April 1, the People’s Daily ran a front-page editorial stating that rather than walk “the old path of Western modernization,” China pursues a superior model based on the people’s “extraordinary struggle” and “thousands of years of civilized glory.” On the other hand, the reaction to Ding and the wenming movement show that in some ways, the Chinese still view their country as backwards. They place great importance on following international norms, including details such as not defacing historical relics. Moreover, many Chinese idealize the West. In a 2011 survey of China’s upper class, nearly one in two respondents were considering moving to the US for better education, healthcare, and overall lifestyle. Right or wrong, they believed that in the West, living standards are higher, schools are better, governments are more reliable, and people are more civilized
Ding Jinhao’s misdeed revealed a side of China’s relationship with the rest of the world that outsiders rarely see. Much of the recent China-related news has been about territorial spats or cyber espionage. However, beyond the image of an increasingly powerful, bold China is a more complex struggle between confidence and conformity, pride and uncertainty.
 The original tweet, including the image and statistics, can be seen here: http://weibo.com/1440641483/zyfhP0kac
 The full guidelines can be found here: http://guoqing.china.com.cn/2013-05/28/content_28953264_2.htm
 The “10 Do’s and 10 Don’ts” can be found here: http://www.baike.com/wiki/《迎奥运+学法律+十要十不要》
 Read the Carter Center’s translation of the editorial here: http://chinaelectionsblog.net/?p=21399
 An article summarizing the report can be found here: http://news.yahoo.com/top-chinese-wealthys-wish-list-leave-china-065826880.html
This article is written by Derek Ha. Derek is an intern for the China Program at the Carter Center. He is a fourth year undergraduate student at Pomona College majoring in International Relations.