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China tells party officials to stop smoking in public

Chinese officials smoke cigarettes as they arrive for the election of the new president of China during the 12th National People's Congress (NPC) in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 14, 2013.

The new Party directive says smoking, “damages the image of the party and the government.”

So does rampant corruption – but smoking seems to be a more manageable vice among China’s ruling elite.

"The leadership wants local officials to change their style and become closer to the people," says Wu Yiqun, who helps head an anti-smoking NGO in Beijing. "Part of this is setting a good example by not smoking."

But old habits die hard.

When I approach three well-dressed smokers in their 50s outside a tobacco shop in Shanghai with my microphone, one of them drops his cigarette and dashes off. The second one retreats into the shop, and the third one, Gu Ziheng, takes a long drag of his cigarette before explaining the other two were "leaders," dodging the question of whether they’re government officials.

Gu thinks this smoking ban is a good idea. "To build a civilized society, you need economic support as a foundation," he says, conjuring Party talking points, "China’s developed into a stronger nation, so it must take care of its image."

As Gu says this, his friend who dashed off peeks his head out from behind a wall, and whispers loudly enough so we all can hear: “Don’t say anything bad about the party!”

Gu and I both nod, the man disappears, and we resume the interview.

Gu tells me this smoking ban has a lot to do with Xi Jinping’s crackdown on corruption. "Now - in China, you have high-end, and low-end, cigarettes," Gu explains, exhaling smoke. "Smoking high-end cigarettes means you’re corrupt."

Local officials in China have been caught using public money to buy expensive cigarettes as gifts to other officials. After Gu puts out his cigarette, his friend who retreated to the tobacco shop comes out with a red, shiny carton of Chunghwa cigarettes. They’re certainly not the highest-end cigarettes.  But Chunghwas, which cost a hundred dollars a carton, are commonly used as bribes in China.

As I stare at the candy apple red box, both men say awkwardly “we bought these with our own money.”

The third man remains partially hidden behind the wall, avoiding the microphone, unable to enjoy a smoke.

About the author

Rob Schmitz is Marketplace’s China correspondent in Shanghai.

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