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Stubbing out Mao's smoky legacy

Starting next year, smoking in public will be illegal in China, meaning an end to 'ashtray diplomacy'.

Last updated: 09 Feb 2014 10:42
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China has banned its officials from smoking in public to set an example to the rest of the country [AP]

Beijing, China - With rhetoric frequently echoing the Great Helmsman, President Xi Jinping has on several occasions given the impression of being a loyal Maoist. But there's one burning issue on which China's leader goes head-to-head with Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping - the war against smoking.

Chairman Mao Zedong was a notorious chain-smoker. In an epic black-and-white photograph from 1957, the dictator is seen sitting on a sofa surrounded by a group of young women from the Communist Youth League happily helping him to light a cigarette.

During the Communist Revolution, Mao famously promised his troops food, shelter and cigarettes.

When his personal physician tried to warn him about the damaging effects of smoking, the leader dismissed him with a joke: "Smoking is also a deep-breathing exercise, don't you think?"

Mao's successor, Deng Xiaoping, can be seen in photographs puffing away during top diplomatic meetings. In a shot from 1984, he's sitting relaxed in an armchair during talks with West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, nonchalantly holding a cigarette between his fingers. And during peace talks with Japan's Prime Minister Fukuda Takeo in 1978, "Deng took out a pack of Panda cigarettes and offered cigarettes to everyone, which immediately lightened the mood", Ezra F Vogel wrote in a biography about Deng. 

'Criticism from the masses'

Today, that kind of behaviour would not be tolerated. Under new regulations spearheaded by Xi Jinping, the two former leaders would be subject to "criticism from the masses" for lighting up in public places or during official meetings.

It's not the first time China has tried to ban smoking, but this time the attitude is more clear.

- Professor Yang Gonghuan

In December, Chinese government officials were told not to smoke in public places, such as hospitals, on public transport or in schools - in order to set a good example for the public. The rules, issued in a government memo, will also bar officials from smoking or offering cigarettes to others when performing official duties, Xinhua news agency reported.

If that wasn't a hard enough blow for government officials, they were then told they would no longer be allowed to use public funds to buy cigarettes.

And in a January follow-up, the Chinese Ministry of Health announced that it would make smoking illegal starting next year for everybody in public places such as buses, restaurants and bars.

Professor Yang Gonghuan, former director of China's National Office of Tobacco Control and a professor of public health at Peking Union Medical College, welcomed the announcement and told Al Jazeera that it showed a new decisiveness from the current leaders.

"It's not the first time China has tried to ban smoking, but this time the attitude is more clear," she said. "I'm not sure if it will succeed or not, but for sure it will be better than all other campaigns before."

Big smokers

With more than 300 million smokers - more than any other country - the World Health Organization estimates that about one in three of the world's cigarettes are smoked in China. The country suffers more than a million deaths from tobacco-related diseases every year, and the WHO warns that if the Chinese keep up the bad habit, that number could increase to three million per year by 2050.

Smoking is not just harmful to health, according to the government. It also gives the country a bad reputation. "Some officials smoke in public areas, which not only damages the environment and public health, but tarnishes the image of the party and government, which has a negative influence," the party memo said.

A decade ago, China signed the WHO's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, but has been criticised for failing to fulfil the promise of reducing tobacco use.

Today, no-smoking signs in restaurants and government buildings all over the country are generally ignored. But now law enforcement is going to be tougher, according to state media. Violators will be punished according to Communist Party discipline. Anyone who spots officials violating the ban should report it.

Two other features might give extra force to the push. First, none of the current members of the Standing Committee of the Politburo - the country's most powerful body - are smokers. Secondly, Jinping's wife, Peng Liyuan, is an outspoken anti-smoking campaigner.

Still, the habits of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping might be hard to kick. Meetings between government officials are commonly held over a cigarette, and offering one to a friend is just as common as pouring a guest a cup of tea is in England.

Corrupt cigarettes

Luxury cigarettes - sometimes with a price tag of thousands of yuan for one carton - are frequently given as gifts to customers and government workers. On one occasion, an official in Shanxi Province reportedly spent more than 60,000 yuan ($9,913) of public funds to buy more than 150 cartons of cigarettes as gifts for participants at a meeting.

"There's a joke in China, saying that state officials never have to spend their own money on liquor and cigarettes," Professor Joseph Cheng Yu-shek of City University in Hong Kong told Al Jazeera.

Giving luxury cigarettes as gifts is also closely linked to corruption, he explained. "If you give a cadre two bottles of exclusive liquor and a carton of expensive cigarettes, it's like knocking on the door. If he accepts the gifts, the door has been opened as he signals that he's acceptable for bribes... This explains the meaning of Xi Jinping's ban on cadres not to spend official money on cigarettes and not to accept when offered as gifts."

Without a doubt, China's anti-smoking campaign still faces an uphill battle.

- Cheng Li, Brookings Institution

Few experts believe that it will be easy to get officials to follow the new path, especially given the deep-rooted tradition of ashtray diplomacy and the failure of previous attempts. Today, more than 60 percent of male government officials are habitual smokers, according to statistics from the Chinese Association of Tobacco - a higher rate than among the public in general.

In addition, the state-owned tobacco monopolist has habitually proven a powerful opponent to any anti-smoking campaign. A 2012 report by Cheng Li of the Washington-based Brookings Institution think-tank estimates that the Chinese tobacco industry generates as much as 10 percent of China's total tax revenue, and points out that tobacco production is the "pillar of the economy" in many regions. Nearly 60 million people make their living through jobs related to the tobacco industry.

"Without a doubt, China's anti-smoking campaign still faces an uphill battle," Cheng Li concluded.

A Hong Kong-based consultant, who wished to remain anonymous for this article because of his clientele in China, said luxury cigarettes were commonly used as gifts in business, and doubted the new ban would have a major impact.

"The mountains are high, and the emperor is far away," he said, referring to a Chinese proverb commonly used when government leaders fail to implement new rules on local levels.

For Xi Jinping, as his predecessor Chairman Mao joked, the new push might indeed prove to be merely a "deep-breathing exercise".

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Al Jazeera
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