Monday, December 10, 2012

Never sorry

The Chinese aren't good at apologising. The obsession with 'loss of face' seems to make them extraordinarily resistant to the idea of even acknowledging error, and often engenders instead a culture of evasiveness, lying - and even self-deception. And even if you can get them to recognise that they've done something wrong, they'll hardly ever actually SAY Sorry.

A few weeks ago, one of my employers sent her office assistant to my bank to make a payment to me. The teller there told the office assistant that my account was about to be frozen.

They didn't tell me. Although you'd think that this would be quite important news to pass on to a customer. And they do have details of how to reach me by mobile phone or e-mail.

Oh no, of course not; no, they told a third party, a complete stranger, the first person to walk in off the street. Someone that I work for!

I was not happy. I went down to the branch, and explained to their English-speaking under-manager that it was VERY BAD to pass on information about the status of a customer's account to a third party because - well, the sort of people who pay me money are also the sort of people that I might sometimes have to pay money to, the sort of people I might do business with, borrow money from, purchase things from, etc.; and if you tell them that my bank account is about to stop working, they might, you know, start to doubt my creditworthiness. It harms my reputation.

The under-manager took all of this on board, and acknowledged that the teller probably shouldn't have done this. I asked for an assurance that it wouldn't happen again, and she said that it wouldn't happen again. I asked her for an apology, and she looked at me in bafflement. I asked her again, and she muttered that the bank had indeed behaved badly. "Well, I'd like you - on behalf of the bank - to say that you're SORRY." She did, eventually; but it was like getting blood out of a stone.

Then, of course, we got into the question of why they thought there was a problem with my account in the first place. They'd told me on the phone that it was something to do with my passport. I wondered if it could possibly be that I'd changed my visa, since I'd left the country for a few months over the summer. But it really shouldn't be any of the bank's business what kind of visa I have, or whether I have a visa at all.

No, it wasn't that. They thought my passport had expired. They thought this because they had mistranscribed my passport details into their computer database (they also have a photocopy of it, which they could have checked - but they didn't). It doesn't expire for another 5 years, but they'd written down 2012 instead of 2017.

I don't know if government regulations on this have been changed, or if it's just this bank - the Bank of East Asia - that's being so particular about its foreign customers having valid passports. I have changed passports while I've been living here, and it didn't seem to cause a problem with any of my other Chinese banks (well, it did, indirectly; but that is one of my biggest China nightmare stories, and will have to wait until another time). The "logic" is, I suppose, that a passport is a foreigner's only means of ID, and they want to keep their customer ID information up to date. However, the fact that we use a passport as ID when opening an account should not mean that it continues to be a necessary form of ID when accessing the account: we have other forms of ID - our bank card, account number, PIN number, personal security questions - to verify our identity and authorise our account access. I envisage a time - perhaps in the not too distant future - when my travelling days will be behind me, and I will settle down back in England; and I might not bother to renew my passport, if I don't anticipate going overseas again. Oh, but I'll have to renew my passport, just to retain access to my Chinese bank account! Although, actually, that still won't do me any good, because they don't have any channels in place for updating customer information online. If I want to maintain access to this bank account in China, I'll have to get a new passport in 2017, and come here in person to notify the bank of the new passport number. [I wonder what kind of visa I'd have to apply for to do that?]

Footnote 1: The title of this post is also the name of an excellent documentary about the mercurial artist/dissident Ai Weiwei that went on general release around the world (not in China, obviously) this summer - essential viewing. Ai Weiwei's unapologetic confrontation of the Chinese government is a noble act of defiance, not a perverse refusal to admit fault.

Footnote 2: A couple of months ago, Yang Rui - the odious TV presenter who embarrassed himself with a series of xenophobic and anti-Semitic outbursts on his microblog earlier this year - issued an 'apology' of sorts for calling Melissa Chan (a Chinese American correspondent for Al Jazeera) a 'bitch'. Well, he referred to having expressed "sincere apologies" on various unspecified occasions in the past, and he acknowledged that his use of a pejorative and sexist term may have been "incautious" - but he didn't actually say Sorry. He appears to be trying to strike a conciliatory pose because his Dialogue programme is dying on its feet, with fewer and fewer foreign experts willing to participate in it. What a scumbag!

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