Bend Your Knees: The Rise of China’s Ayi State

I have family visiting this week, and as usual one quarter of my living room has turned into a suitcase ghetto. I was sitting on the sofa watching the cats play “King of the Hill” on the luggage mountain when my eyes were drawn to a bright orange tag on one of the larger bags.

The tag depicts a person (it’s actually a cartoon stick figure) bending at the knees, with back straight, holding a large rectangular object, presumably a refrigerator or large screen LCD TV that an eager tourist was bringing back from a shopping junket to Asia. The tag has the word “HEAVY” in bold across the top, with “BEND YOUR KNEES” and an arrow pointing to the bended knees of the stick figure towards the bottom. I suspect that the tag is one of many attempts by Continental Airlines to minimize workplace accidents and, perhaps more importantly, forestall tort claims by employees with bad backs.

The United States has a long-standing tradition of bemoaning warning signs, disclaimers, cautionary statements and, more recently, the dreaded click-through agreements as silly, unnecessary and evidence that the Nanny State is out of control. Such complaints have gained a great deal of traction since Ralph Nader’s consumer protection successes of the 1970s and the push-back against government regulation started by the Reagan Administration in 1980.

When I arrived in China, one of the first things I noticed is the lack of Nanny State-ish control over my person. This statement, when delivered to foreigners with no China experience, is usually met with either a guffaw or polite chuckle (i.e., I was joking), or a puzzled expression (i.e., those words do not track with my preexisting notions of China’s totalitarian State).

I suppose it depends on your definition of the Nanny State. Wikipedia’s page on the term includes the following definition:

Nanny state is a term that refers to state protectionism, economic interventionism, or regulatory policies (of economic, social or other nature), and the perception that these policies are becoming institutionalized as common practice.

That covers quite a bit of territory and could include anything from the activity of State-owned Enterprises, aggressive industrial policy, or the latest campaign against pornography. For me personally, I tend to think about the intrusiveness of others, including government, on my daily life. In that sense, I believe that such intrusiveness in China (let’s call it the Ayi State) is actually less than the U.S. Nanny State, but the gap seems to be decreasing as time goes on.

Some examples. I used to live in D.C. and took the Metro (subway, tube, underground) on a regular basis. If I brought any sort of food or drink, even a bottle of water or candy bar, I ran the risk of being arrested in an aggressive, scary manner. Some riders have even had problems with speaking too loudly on mobile phones. This is what I would call an intrusive application of State power.

In China, until recently, you could pretty much bring whatever you wanted onto the subway. In some places, even bringing a small pet with you might not have attracted attention, and food was never an issue.

Similarly, one used to be able to bring food and drinks into any commercial establishment, with the exception perhaps of a competing restaurant or cafe. Clothing boutiques, electronics outlets, department stores – no problem. If you’re in the middle of eating a delicious yang rou chuan, feel free to bring it into the store with you.

Sign of the Times

Unfortunately, the spread of foreign franchises in particular has slowly eroded the freedom of China residents to carry food around with them. Many establishments now have affixed to their front windows the dreaded “No food, no drink, no pets” signs, or alternatively the stickers with the pictures of food with the lines drawn across to ensure that the unwashed masses are also clued in. While this does not have anything to do with government action, it is in my mind a curtailment of personal freedom and evidence that China’s Ayi State is being kicked into overdrive.

Big Brother is now watching you more closely on the job than he used to, thanks in part to the Western model of doing business. I remember quite fondly the post-lunchtime desk nap, which was a tradition in most workplaces here. If you worked in an office, you simply put your head down on your desk when you got back from lunch and took a quick power nap, or alternatively sat there for a half hour and read the newspaper to unwind before getting back to work.

One of my former places of employment was managed by a foreigner who, upon seeing Chinese staff napping at their desks, went ballistic and called them unprofessional. An unfortunate cultural disagreement. After that outburst, no one on staff dared to take a siesta again, which probably ended up hurting productivity in the long run. So much for the laid back workplace.

What makes China so interesting to me is the persistent presence of “public morals” campaigns in a society that is quite unselfconscious in many respects. Bring that sandwich onto the subway with you, drink your iced tea while shopping for clothes, wear a hat indoors, go outside in your pajamas. It’s all good. Just don’t do those things in New York, or Tokyo, or London – wearing pajamas outside in NYC will get you laughed at or physically assaulted. If you do it in L.A., you might get your own reality TV show.

Not Very Effective

It’s not all flowers and sunshine here, of course. That laid back attitude also brings us ubiquitous expectoration, also known as hocking loogies, poor mobile phone manners, infants relieving their bowels and bladders on public thoroughfares, harsh management practices, and sharp elbows on all forms of public transportation. But hey, as the philosopher once said, you take the good, you take the bad, you take them both and there you have the facts of life. Well, perhaps it wasn’t a philosopher who said that, I don’t recall.

Campaigns against public morals have been going on for many decades (under the CCP), and since folks are still spitting and I still come across lots of cockroaches and sparrows in Beijing, I don’t see much success on that front. Campaigns against online pornography are also somewhat amusing as this is a practice endemic to humanity and will not be easily rubbed out, so to speak. I bet the workers who constructed the Great Pyramid of Giza spent their nights furtively staring at racy hieroglyphs while practicing the Onanistic arts.

I worry that China is learning too much from the West. Better workplace safety is sorely needed here, and I wouldn’t mind if toddlers stopped pinching off a loaf in the street, but it would be sad if on my next trip to Capital Airport, some schmuck from China Eastern affixes a “Bend Your Knees” tag to my suitcase.

So how far should the State, or other actors, go in telling us what to do with our personal lives? Do the following parenting lessons go too far? Heh.


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  1. SteveLaudig

    “An unfortunate cultural disagreement. After that outburst, no one on staff dared to take a siesta again, which probably ended up hurting productivity in the long run. So much for the laid back workplace.” The nap phenomenon has science to support it. People who nap have better performances later in the day, smarter, brighter, etc.

  2. Here in the UK the thought of our politicians being as trusted as your average nanny is amusing… surely nobody would trust a British politician with keys to their house or car – they’d re-mortgage the house and sell the car in the first week, pocketing the money in the process.
    I definitely have more confidence in our nannies.
    On a more serious note it does perplex me that as we all become more international we seem to be adding to the rules that limit our personal freedoms; whilst they may appear small in themselves – the collective loss of freedom is unfortunate.

  3. The question is one of balance. Yes, US signage may be out of control, but that may be due to a runaway, lottery-based, tort system, all of which may be systemic as attorneys feed the politicians. On the other hand, while in Taiwan–some decades ago–at twilight I encountered a huge gapping hole in the sidewalk, directly in front of me. No signs or even barriers erected. The workers apparently had stopped work and returned home leaving the hole to be filled in the next morning. I marveled at their cavalier attitude; in the US, this hole would have been fenced in and plastered with signs. On the other hand, this “cavalier” attitude is also systemic relative to the culture as a whole with regard to safety-nets in general, i.e. unemployment insurance, disability insurance, and on-the-job safety. Classic: checkout Chinese coal mining ventures.

    • China’s tort system, workplace safety, etc. needs a lot of work, no doubt. On the other hand, a lot of signage, disclaimers and so forth are completely superfluous in the U.S. and have little to no legal effect. I suspect that a lot of in-house counsels over the years created some of those things in order to appear useful in the face of senseless litigation.

      Point is this: if China needs to be safer, borrow the right things from the U.S., don’t bother with useless (and sometimes counterproductive) rules like no pets in the store or naps at your desk.

      • AndyR

        Since it seems that a child in our apartment complex here in Shenzhen gets bitten at least once a month by someone’s under-trained pooch, I wouldn’t say that “no pets” in the store or subway is such a useless rule-not that it is the animal’s fault but you can’t always trust the owners to teach their prized pet how to behave in public…naps at your desk is another story, something that should actually be encouraged…

        • Fair enough. I wouldn’t want someone’s German shepherd in my face while I was eating lunch. Some rules make more sense than others.

          The “No drinks in the store” rule comes out of personal injury litigation, in infamous “slip and fall cases.” That’s a shame.

  4. oster

    Freedom is brought into existence by points of views.

    The loss of freedom to smoke indoors for one individual for example, might give rise to the freedom from cigarette smoke for someone else.

    So it’s really hard to run a freedom audit.

    • I wouldn’t put some of the new public smoking bans into the category of “useless” rules. Those laws have an obvious public health basis.

      So there is definitely a time and a place for new rules. I just don’t like the stupid ones (in my opinion).

  5. JoE

    It’s also great as a blanket statement so that you don’t get sued later on.

Continuing the Discussion