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Smoking as an expression of the Chinese idea of freedom

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.


  1. This is the big issue: “In the west we might define freedom as the ability to participate or not participate in any act, so long as it doesn’t effect others. … In China however, freedom means that you should be able to do whatever you want …”.

    THIS might be why Chinese culture is so authoritarian. If I believe that “freedom” means the right to swing your fist, as long as you don’t hit my face, then I want you to have this freedom so you’ll support mine. But if I believe that “freedom” means the right to swing your fist, regardless of whether my face is in the way, I don’t want you to have it because I don’t like getting punched.

    We often argue about where my face is and what constitutes punching me. But the principle that makes the argument possible is the one that lets us support each other’s freedoms.

  2. Where the Chinese go wrong: With freedom comes responsibility.

    (I also agree with the libertarian principles posted by Ori above.)

  3. Sorry, I meant to post that in my name, Amy Alkon. If you could kindly fix so my email address is not deluged with spam I’d be very grateful. The order on your blog made me confused before coffee (it’s usually different on blogs, with name first).

  4. ToTheLightHouse says:

    Chinese is definitely the most egocentric and “tolerant” species all around the world. The inherent contradiction between the two kinds of distinct nature is so “perfectly” reconciled by their characteristics that they could perform their own versions of liberty respectively without upsetting the balance between them.The proportion of egocentricity to tolerance can be modified by latitude given by the sovereign.If pressure from the monarch is tremendous,tolerance predominates;if trivia,then egocentricity does.But they can’t be so exterminated simultaneously that it seems that both of them coexistent with each other.
    PLS forgive my lame english.我是天朝人.

  5. Lao Why? says:

    I often think of this in the context of space (substituted for the word freedom). It’s the same phenomenon as a karaoke singer every 30 feet at jingshan park on a saturday. Chaos! It seems a chinese will take the space until forced to share. I will say that most willingly relent/retreat when asked to do so nicely. But it is an interesting concept of space.

    • Lao Why? says:

      As another example of my comment on space, if you have traveled in China, you probably have encountered the hotel situation where the guests leave the door open and the conversational noise (and cigarette smoke) waft down the hall. Probably mainlanders think foreigners are weird because they keep their hotel doors closed.

  6. kimstacey says:

    Fascinating post, and remarkably astute responses! Thank you so much for thought-provoking reading!

  7. Yes, great post! The concept of The Golden Rule (Treat others as you would like to be treated) has yet to catch on in China. Confucious’ saying was in the negative (don’t do what you don’t want others to do to you) and even then isn’t really put into practice.

  8. 34f67dg72 says:

    “so long as it doesn’t effect others” the verb is affect, not effect

  9. […] Smoking as an expression of the Chinese idea of freedom, no interessante blog Seeing Red in China. […]

  10. Rod Ferguson says:


    Good morning. I came over here from Amy Alkon’s blog. I tried to have a conversation about this, but she can’t accept that two wrongs don’t make a right (we were arguing about what constitutes punching, in your excellent example). I’d like to continue the conversation over here, if you don’t mind?

    I think Myra is on to something; there is a difference between “treat others as you want to be treated”, and “don’t do things to others as you wouldn’t want done to yourself”. It is possible, with the prevalence of smoking in China, that the people who are lighting up wheverever they want wouldn’t mind if others did the same, so they do not feel they are being rude or irresponsible. Those that do mind do not want people to tell them to stop whatever behaviour they might engage in, so they tolerate the offense. My argument, in general, is that China (or, more specifically, the Chinese people or culture) has chosen a tolerance approach to things they personally find offensive. Here in the US, we have chosen intolerance as a general rule. Living in the US, I can see the effects of chosing intolerance, but I’d be curious to know what other effect tolerance has in China. If anyone has any other examples?


    Fascinating. I would expect egocentrism to overrule tolerance more often than not. And, your English is fine.

    @Lao Why?:

    That behaviour isn’t surprising to me. At an outdoor concert in the US, for example, a person or people will occupy the space they want (and “guard” that space) until it becomes obvious that there are too many people. Then they usually adapt themselves to the new space requirement. Although, I do find the idea of keeping your hotel room door open a little odd. Do you think that has to do with a different perception of privacy or something else?


    It’s called the Silver Rule (as compared to the Golden Rule). Similar on the surface, but different in action, I agree. Having never been to China, I cannot comment on how it is imlpemented there. If you have any other examples, I’d be anxious to see them.

  11. Just Laowai says:

    I believe these little “freedoms” like smoking, driving on the sidewalk and pedestrians walking down the middle of the street are deliberately allowed by the authorities. As long as there is “freedom” on these little and largely insignificant things, then there is an illusion of actual freedom and citizens will be less concerned with the fact that they live in a totalitarian country and have very little control over the direction of their lives.

  12. Rod Ferguson says:


    Whoops – sorry. I mistook your first entry as a followup.

    @Just Laowai:

    That certainly is possible. Without any exposure to Chinese culture, I can’t say one way or the other. I can say that if this is the case, then the state is making a mistake; once people get used to freedom, even a little bit, they tend to want more.

    • Just Laowai says:

      Dont forget, there is little “real freedom” it is mostly just an illusion of freedom. But it is true that as the “haves” in this country get more and more stuff they will eventually want more liberty too. This is the conundrum of balancing development with totalitarian control.

  13. […] so long, because one level of frustration is gone, but there still remain other frustrations like rudeness on the street, things like that. But at least I can say that I don’t have that third layer, […]

  14. Chopstik says:

    Apparently “freedom” is a subjective term. Using Tom’s example, Westerners demand the freedom to not be impacted by the smoke from someone else while Chinese want the freedom to smoke where they want. Perhaps another way to view this issue is through the lens of the freedom to suffer the consequences of our actions – something that most people seemingly are unwilling/unable to reconcile with “freedom”. In that context, where does this freedom then land in the eyes of both Westerners and Chinese?

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