Tipping is Not a City in China
My favorite annoying sign on a plastic cup begging tips in a Starbucks coffee house reads "Tipping is not a city in China". I guess that is supposed to make us laugh and throw in a tip? After living so long in Asia where tipping just is not a custom, I am totally flummoxed when I travel to the US or Europe and am confronted with tipping situations. I have become unused to the requirement and find it awkward now, despite having grown up where it is commonplace.
Adding a certain percentage onto the restaurant bill makes a little sense, I can do that. But the guy who held the door open at the hotel? Am I supposed to tip him? And the guy who handled my suitcase from door to exit and the other guy who got it into the cab? I find it all overwhelming.
Conveniently for travelers to Asia and specifically to China, tipping is not something you need to worry about during your visit to the Middle Kingdom. While those plastic jars have made their way into the Starbucks of China, it's really up to you whether you leave a tip. In almost all cases of service in China, it is not expected that you tip. There is one exception, which I'll cover below.
Tipping in restaurants is not done. Many restaurants, especially ones frequented by tourist groups, will add a service charge to the bill. Chinese style restaurants often have more than one person serving your table and the woman you ordered from will not necessarily deliver your food. So tipping based on service would be difficult.
I know some expats who live in Shanghai who like to leave a tip for the server if it's a restaurant they frequent and they know the staff. Again, it's ultimately up to you, but tipping is not expected or required.
Bellboys and some staff may have become used to the international traveler giving small tips in large international hotels, but again, it is not expected or required. And certainly, as mentioned in the restaurant section, larger hotels and restaurants charge a service fee, e.g. 15%, so any guilt about not leaving a tip can be assuaged with this outrageous fee.
Here again, tipping in spas is not required or expected. Even the smaller, local foot massage spa will likely have a service charge associated with your final bill. If you're really concerned that the person who gave you your treatment get a tip, then you need to hand it directly to that person. But as I mentioned, this person will likely be confused and ask you to pay at the front reception desk.
Hotel and large spas will most definitely have a 15 to 18% service charge tacked on to the final spa bill so you can look forward to that. Again, in spas, as in hotels and restaurants, it is not customary to leave a tip.
What Happens If You Tip
If you do decide to leave a tip, like the change leftover after a meal, your waiter may look puzzled or even try to chase you down to give it back. In larger cities, wait-staff are becoming used to foreign visitors leaving tips so they'll probably happily keep it. However, the bottom line is, in China, it certainly isn't necessary or expected to tip.
The Exception: Organized Tours
If part of your China journey includes going on any type of organized tour, then tipping here is an exception to the rule. Organized tours are a whole different category and it is expected that guides and drivers receive tips after your participation in an organized tour.