Any foreigner who has spent more than a few hours in China might have noticed that smokers are everywhere. Many notice it before they even leave the airport. In Shanghai’s Pudong airport, it’s not uncommon to see a man place a cigarette between his lips or behind his ear before he’s even off the plane. Most of them will duck into the first bathroom they can find to light up, despite the ban on smoking in airports (this might not be the first impression they were hoping for when they built PVG). But what does the ubiquitous smoking tell us about China?
First, it gives us a very interesting glimpse into how many Chinese view freedom. In the west we might define freedom as the ability to participate or not participate in any act, so long as it doesn’t affect others. This version of freedom is very visible in our anti-smoking campaigns in the States; you can’t smoke here, because other people’s health would be effected. In China however, freedom means that you should be able to do whatever you want (several of my Chinese friends have made this argument). If I want to light up in a crowded restaurant, I should be able to, because that is what I would most like to do. Laws and placards be damned.
This Chinese notion of freedom fits within one conception of freedom, just one that becomes somewhat untenable in a country of well over a billion people. It’s the same notion that leads to 6 a.m. construction projects in neighboring apartments, driving in reverse down sidewalks full of students, and a good amount of the other unusual behavior that drives expats crazy. One thing that you might not realize by simply watching what happens, is that most of my Chinese friends would describe these same behaviors as uncivilized and rude, but they wouldn’t want to impose on someone else’s freedom.
While this seems to contradict the idea that Chinese society focuses more on collective benefits than individual ones, this notion of freedom ignores the individuals who don’t want to breathe second-hand smoke and is limited only by acts that interfere with collective issues like stability (so clearly rumor-mongering is beyond the pale).
The second thing that we can learn from smoking in China, is that the line between “can’t” and “won’t” is often poorly defined. Virtually every doctor I have spoken with in the last two years at the hospital has mentioned that smoking is causing massive health problems, with roughly 12% of male deaths being linked to the practice. The Chinese gov’t has also released a flurry of articles and proclamations in an effort to reduce smoking with virtually no effect (even a state report said that they were among the least effective in the world).
So which is it? Is it that the Central gov’t simply can’t reign in local gov’t agencies to enforce these no smoking laws that are on the books, or is it that they won’t enforce these laws because it would effect tax collection efforts (this is overly simplified, but the gist of the arguments are there)? The answer is that there is an inextricable mix of both “can’t” and “won’t”.
Similar questions could be posed about prostitution, corruption, black jails and a whole host of other social ills. An angry opinion piece from PD last year, the kind that has since disappeared from the paper, argued that
…because of low salaries of law enforcement officers, offering bribes is relatively easy. As a result, law enforcement officers in the chain have become corrupt. With the protection of law enforcement officials, counterfeiters will be more reckless. When the industry becomes open to “hidden rules,” the role of law enforcement officers becomes numb or powerless.
So even though the Central gov’t may desperately want to curb these scandals, they may actually be powerless to stop them.
It’s always interesting to see how something as meaningless as smoking in the airport (and everywhere else) can reflect both gov’t policies and ideas about freedom.