Consumer Rights Day and the Building of a Whiny Society

I’m a big fan of consumer rights, a strong tort system, good workplace safety rules, tough government oversight, and an effective system of product recalls to ensure public safety. All important goals, all still somewhat lacking in China as its economy and legal system develop.

However, as I recently suggested on this blog, there are good rules, and then there are stupid rules. The same thinking applies to the area of consumer law and consumer rights, and even when we have decent rules, there are limited resources for enforcement, so we have to choose our battles carefully.

Yesterday was International Consumer Rights Protection Day, a “holiday” whose goal is to spread the word about the rights of your average guy out there as he goes up against the predatory practices of scary corporations. I’m with you so far. Lots of dodgy practices out there perpetrated by douchey corporations. We need all the help we can get.

The local press here in China, particularly the State-run media, was all over the story yesterday, pointing out that the public champions of the consumer (i.e., the quality supervision agency AQSIQ) is doing a valiant job fighting current battles against Toyota and Hewlett-Packard. Hooray for the little guy!

It’s all very romantic, in a David versus Goliath sort of way. But there’s also a dark side. Well, maybe not so much dark as silly.

Restaurants that charge diners for tableware are violating consumers’ rights, according to an open letter published on Sunday that was penned by a cartel of powerful advocacy groups, including ones from the capital.

The letter, that was signed by consumers’ associations from 21 cities and the China Consumers Journal, said restaurants are obliged to provide free, clean and safe tableware under the terms of the Food Safety Law and Consumer Rights Protection Law.

The cost of providing clean and safe tableware should not be transferred to consumers because that would mean restaurants would ordinarily offer a low standard of service that violate consumers’ rights, the open letter claimed.

I Think I've Been Sterilized

The horror, the horror.

If you’re not familiar with this, the issue involves restaurants that put out tableware that is individually wrapped, because it is supposedly “sterilized,” and they charge extra for the service, usually 1 RMB in my experience. I’ve seen several different packages, from the simple chopsticks-wrapped-in-paper (one time use), to chopsticks-and-wetnap-combo (sometimes new, sometimes sterilized), to the big shrink-wrapped-cutlery-and-dishes-ensemble (everything you need for the table, sterilized). Maybe you’ve seen other mixes and matches of items.

The restaurant doesn’t always announce the surcharge to the customer, nor do they give you the option of using non-sterilized, cheapie tableware.

Yeah, technically under the Consumer Protection Law of ’94, hidden charges are verboten. However, restaurants that get caught doing this probably just add a line to the bottom of their menu, in a very small font, saying that they charge 1 RMB for cutlery, and then they’re covered. Even a small sign at the front of the restaurant announcing the surcharge would probably be sufficient.

So why all the concern? Are all these sneaky restauranteurs trying to screw over their patrons? Should anyone care? Is this something worth the attention of “powerful advocacy groups” from 21 cities and a concerted letter-writing campaign?

What's All the Fuss About?

I am a lot more sympathetic to the consumers who have faulty HP laptops, Toyota cars that won’t stop, and any number of incidents involving  product liability or commercial fraud. I get the feeling that a good number of the people whining about 1 kuai chopsticks would feel right at home at a U.S. “Tea Party” rally, ranting about how everyone is out to fleece them.

Let me be blunt. If that extra 1 RMB surcharge is a budget killer for you, then you may wish to cut back on restaurant outings. If that’s not feasible, try asking about the surcharge wherever you go, since it’s so important to you. If none of those suggestions fit your lifestyle, consider bringing your own chopsticks with you when you leave the house.

Oh right, forgot one: if a restaurant tries to screw you over on a “sterilization fee,” you may wish to consider not going back to that particular establishment.

Perhaps consumer rights groups are simply overstaffed and need more things to do, but I doubt it. Given the problems we’ve seen in China with food safety and defective products just in the past couple of years, incidents that have led to babies dying, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that they have much better things to do than spend their time on shrink-wrapped chopsticks.


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  1. Oh~sofa[Forgive me ~ ~]

    For the tableware:
    If stand at the restaurant runners side, I would say, go to those street side shops, we provide glorious dinning halls, shiny marble tables, pretty beautiful “waitresses”, we spend a rather sum of money, hence we are first-class. And the first-class is not you stingy poor people. There is where you shall go.

    I hear westerners saying that Chinese restaurants are dirty, the waiters are impolite with poor manners by and by. I feel disgruntled and insulted.

    First, not all Chinese ones are customer unfriendly. Many of them are run by the jobless with very limited money and facilities, even no fixed place to do business. No disinfection cabinet, no dishwasher(those they cannot afford), no sanitation licence(never has chance to obtain), but we still like to buy food from them, for the kind price and sweet smile.
    It is Chinese style.

    I have to mention you the “No entry for those without proper suit.” Pizzahut. They provide high-rank service(really?!), while violating a large amount of consumers’ right.
    I have question, do Pizzahut also put that board in other place of the world? How could consumer right association allow them do that?

    • Jay (a different one)

      Sorry Vivian, didn’t mean to dump on you (see below).
      As for your last question, the answer is yes. The “no shoes, no shirt, no service” signs are quite common around the world, especially in those places where shoe and/or shirtless customers might frequent (e.g. you can see this often in Australia, but in Berlin, Chicago or Paris I’ve not seen it).
      Being charged for (clean) cutlery, however, seems to be exclusively Chinese, as far as I have seen. I find it embarrassing to say the least…

  2. Teacher in C

    I get your point of how it seems silly to get all aggro about 1 RMB. On the other hand, the group makes a point – we are being charged for clean dishes and cutlery at a restaurant. Say it to yourself a few times, and tell me that it doesn’t sound ridiculous. It doesn’t matter whether it’s 1 rmb or 1 mao, it’s the principle. We are being charged for clean dishes and cutlery at a restaurant.

    Yes, there are loads and loads of bigger problems, babies dying, people dying in car crashes from faulty equipment, etc etc.

    Still, we are being charged for clean dishes and cutlery at a restaurant.

    Doesn’t that irk you even a little bit?

    • I agree. I remember being really annoyed when this trend started, and I’m pretty certain this is indeed a new trend that started a few years ago as one way to pass on costs to (or extract a bit more profit from) diners. First it was the napkins (or wetnaps) that would run you a kuai or two, then it became the “sterilized” and shrink-wrapped plates, bowls, and utensils. Initially, I’d reject them and demand a free set invoking the same logic as above, but have since shamefully bent over and let the restaurants give it to me repeatedly.

      On the other hand, I can see how this has created new industries and maybe economies of scale. Now all dishes can be centrally washed and sanitized (and shrink-wrapped) to be regularly delivered to the restaurants that need them, employing professional dishwashers and sanitizers (and shrink-wrappers) and delivery people. Of course, centralizing it and adding SOPs also cannibalizes some jobs given the greater efficiencies of the process so in a way, there probably would’ve been more total employment if we left dishwashing to the individual restaurants themselves, forcing them to hire more staff to occasionally scrub a dub dub.

      And furthermore, is this really that different from the concept of tipping our service staff? Isn’t that also the restaurant passing on the cost of hiring service staff and providing service to the diner?

      But yeah, I agree with the principle and I don’t mind these groups making a fuss about it, as long as they’re spending more time on, say, melamine laced milk, where the consequences are far more insiduous, far less apparent, and far more difficult to avoid than the 1 kuai extra for fresh shrink wrap.

      • ” . . . is this really that different from the concept of tipping our service staff?”

        But in what countries, other than the US and Canada where tips basically constitute a tax-free wage supplement, do people do this? It seems you argue from a rather US-centric view point. At any rate, extra charges made unannounced is a nuisance.

  3. Jay (a different one)

    This irks me too — both ways.
    For one, I completely agree that there are more important issues that might be worth spending time and effort on, such as plastic in milk and so on (or is that too just ‘Chinese Style’ that we should just take for granted, or better yet, pay extra for, 1 RMB melamine surcharge…?)
    For another, charging extra for something that should be a given (or is basic cleanliness contrary to ‘Chinese Style’?) is just dumb. What’s next, seating fee, table fee, oxygen surcharge? It is in fact not just dumb, but extra dumb, because it allows you to not use this ‘service’ (bring your own wet-naps etc), so the extra cost is not always going to be recouped. Instead, charging an extra few jiao or yuan per dish allows more profit to be made even if people bring their own cutlery or order take-out. And future profits are out of the window because yes, we just go somewhere else to eat, for example to some place where the fishing of an extra couple RMB from our pockets happens with a little bit more (non-Chinese?) style, and where cleanliness is not seen as a special add-on….

Continuing the Discussion