Service with a smile
By You Nuo (China Daily)
Updated: 2008-11-17 10:56

Perhaps nowhere else in the world can people see this - the scene in our black-and-white old photo this week: new McDonald's staff in China being trained in 1992 as if they were soldiers in basic training. Each look somewhat stern as they perform the same uniform welcoming gesture at the morning opening of one of Beijing's first outlets for the United States-based fast food chain.

This could only happen in China. Or rather, it could only happen in China in the 1990s, as it was just beginning to walk out of the shadow of the planned economy. The scene reminds Chinese customers (those who must be in their 40s) of what the two worlds actually meant to them - a shortage of almost everything, including sincere, good service.

The reason why the welcoming gesture was so mechanically performed was because the service staff throughout the State sector simply did not have to make the gesture, much less crack a smile for customers. Despite the powerful State, the planned economy simply failed to enforce any service provider - from the banks to the restaurants - to live up to the slogan to "serve the people".

But this being the case, it also created the reason why the planned economy had to be replaced by competing private services that were constantly aiming for higher quality and improved standards for survival.

Therefore, if anyone suggests that the economic reform is only a superficial thing, they are mistaken. There has been a cultural sea change. Today's customers no longer find themselves shut out of shops (even clinics and government offices) that claim to be engaged in political study sessions or ignored by sullen-faced waiters and shop assistants.

It is not because they have all graduated from the McDonalds' training course. It is because they must learn to earn their wages by providing respectful service. So in our color photo, taken 15 years later, also at the moment when a restaurant (this time featuring Chinese cuisine) opens for business, we see a new generation of service workers.

They may be young men and women who have just arrived from their rural hometowns not long ago. Some of them may still be too shy to talk with customers. But everyone understands what the start of the business hour means and is showing a smile - at least a natural-looking one.

But of course the Chinese market economy is not a paradise. Contaminated foods and fake goods continue to be ongoing problems. But please, don't blame the young men and women who are attending the shops. Blame the government regulators for not doing their work.

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