Tipping in China

Tipping is an accepted fact of life in most of the world. It’s how we show satisfaction, or dissatisfaction in some cases, with the service we’ve received. To a large extent, this is not true in China. China is basically a no-tipping nation. Chinese don’t tip and, for the most part, don’t expect to be tipped. Most Chinese establishments, in fact, have a strict no-tipping policy and, in some places, tipping a taxi driver may actually be against the law.

The Chinese government had previously declared tipping illegal since giving good service was expected. This policy existed in China as recently as the 1980’s. So ingrained was this no tipping policy that it’s sometimes, even now, difficult to get someone to accept a tip. In contrast, Westerners are used to tipping and do it as a matter of course. The Chinese aren’t and basically won’t tip. Therefore, when you try to give someone a tip they’re usually surprised and initially don’t want to receive the money. They feel awkward and possibly embarrassed. It’s out of the norm. In fact, some staff will just flat out refuse to take a tip as they view good service as part of their job and some, especially older servers who lived before China was opened to the world, may even find a tip to be impolite as it implies that we feel their work is undervalued by their employer.

This national no tipping policy seemed to work well when China was a closed society and prices were controlled by the government. There wasn’t much to buy anyway. Gradually, however, China opened itself to the world. More foreigners started coming to China and with them came their natural bias for tipping. Over time the government relaxed its no tipping policy and moved on to more important issues. As China became the manufacturing melting pot of the world, more and more foreigners stayed in China’s hotels, ate in restaurants, and paid for ancillary services. Gradually, especially with the younger generation, which has grown up with global media and personal exposure to the outside world, tipping has begun to enter life in China, but primarily with those who have interaction with Westerners.

If you’re staying at a Western hotel in China, then the rules on tipping would be the same as those in the United States and Europe as Westerners, over time, have conditioned the staff to tipping. You would therefore tip bellhops and add a tip to your bill at the hotel’s restaurant, where there’s often a blank space left for this purpose. The amount of the tip, however, usually averages less than a tip you would give at a similar hotel in the West. This will be in stark contrast to a Chinese hotel and its restaurant whose employees would probably suffer a stroke if a Chinese person gave them a tip.

As a general rule, tipping is acceptable, and probably somewhat expected, at Western hotels and their in-house facilities. But it’s not mandatory. Even so, tipping even in a large city such as Beijing wouldn’t be the same as New York where you would have to stop at the local ATM before commencing your journey out of the hotel, and through the raft of staff willing to assist you in this journey with their palms out. Even in major Chinese cities a modest tip is very well received as Chinese very rarely, if ever, tip in China.

For those who try, tipping outside of Western hotels and restaurants can be tricky. When you pay a bill with cash at a restaurant in Los Angeles, for example, you would probably leave the tip directly on the table. In China, however, that practice may result in you actually paying more for your meal, as it’s likely that the restaurant would keep the tip and not pass it on to the waiter or waitress. Instead, it’s better to put the money directly into the hands of your server without management seeing you do so. If they do, they’re very likely to make the server give the money to the restaurant. As a general policy, if you do tip, any amount is likely to be sufficient as the gesture in China is so uncommon that the amount is often beside the point.

Alan Refkin

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