To Motivate Employees, Chinese Companies Try Public Humiliation

August 5, 2016 Updated: August 5, 2016

The director of a Chinese decoration company has decided the best way to encourage his poor-performing sales representatives is public humiliation—putting them on stage and eating raw kugua, the famed Chinese bitter melon, in front of other employees.

“It was my first time eating bitter melon raw,” said Tang Shuju who added that he nearly threw up after having the first bite. “But the rule is that if you throw up, you have to eat another one.”

“I belched while I was eating it,” said another employee who managed to down the vegetable with the help of some water. “But I put up with having it in my mouth. I was afraid to be punished and made to have a second one if I puked.”

The incident took place Chongqing in southwest China, reported Chinese news portal Sina on July 19. It is the latest in a trend of negative reinforcement that are intended, somehow, to encourage success.

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Salesmen in their underwear run through the streets of Foshan. (via Yangcheng Evening News)

Company director Mr. Shi said he came up with the bitter melon punishment because the company’s business took a dive because his 100 sales staff had shown a dip in performance in the hot summer temperature. A total of 40 employees who failed to meet their weekly quotas were treated to the melon, Shi told Sina.

“You either eat bills [money], or you eat bitter melon. Everyone loves bills and nobody wants to eat bitter melon. If you don’t want to suffer, you work harder,” said Mr. Shi, who claims that the punishment has caused a threefold jump in sales.

Netizens commenting on Sina Weibo, China’s popular microblogging site, aren’t so keen about the measures taken. One comment from Liaoning Province reads: “how messed up, isn’t it enough just to deduct from their bonus?”

“There are no human rights in Chinese companies,” a comment from Jiangsu Province says. “A worker’s dignity is as worthless as dust.”

Public humiliation is far from new in China. During the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s, intellectuals and officials were criticized and often physically attacked, sometimes fatally, in rallies known as “struggle sessions.” Current Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s father Xi Zhongxun became the subject of one of these sessions after he was labeled an “anti-party element.”

In recent years, humilation has been revived for capitalist pursuits. In June, a video went viral online after an agricultural bank in Shanxi Province hired a consulting coach to publically spank employees who performed unsatisfactorily in a training session.

Other companies have taken punishments outdoors. In July 2013, male sales representatives of a gym in Foshan, a city in the southern province of Guangdong, were forced to run through the streets dressed only in their underwear while shouting “Complete the mission,” the state-run Yangcheng Evening News reported.

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Saleswomen in Chongqing crawl on the ground as punishment for their poor performance. (via People’s Net)

The run became a daily slog for some salesmen who couldn’t hit their previous day’s targets. This was only one of multiple possible punishments, including the consumption of raw bitter melon, compulsory begging on the streets, or having their heads shaved.  

Female employees are not immune to penal humiliation, either. In May 2013, saleswomen at a cosmetics company in Chongqing were made to crawl in their red uniforms and high heels through the city’s busy business district while shouting “we can make it!” reported People’s Net, the online edition of state mouthpiece People’s Daily. A male colleague led the procession while waving a red flag.

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Workers grovel while shouting gratitude for their employers in Shenyang. (via Guncha)

Humiliation isn’t only for punishment. In September 2015, the owner of a hot pot restaurant in Shenyang, capital of Liaoning Province in the northeast, decided that being grateful was corporate culture. In a public stunt reported by the Shanghai-based website Guncha, his employees were ordered to get on their knees and kowtow to the restaurant’s executives, while shouting their gratitude for letting them work for him.

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