Tea Leaf Nation

A Drag on the State

A new order says Chinese cadres should stop smoking in public -- but they knew that already.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Smoking is already bad for one’s health, but in China, it might also be dangerous for one’s career. On Dec. 29, China’s central government issued an order instructing cadres to "lead the way" by refraining from smoking in public places, the latest move in an ongoing campaign against misbehavior by Communist Party officials. But much of what it prohibits is already illegal: Nationwide ordinances have prohibited smoking in indoor public spaces and some outdoor public spaces since 2011. The notice requiring government workers to stop smoking publicly, while vague about penalties, is an admission that within government ranks, the law is not always enough.

The notice, although written in legalese, manages to sound mildly threatening. It informs officials that they must all "accept public supervision," which likely includes the social media scrutiny that has brought down numerous officials caught flouting the law. (Even cigarettes are not too small to escape the eager eyes of online sleuths: In Dec. 2008, Zhou Jiugeng, an official in the southern city of Nanjing, lost his job after netizens discovered him toting smokes that cost more than an honest official could afford.)

But what punishment awaits bureaucrats caught on smartphone cameras lighting up in the wrong place? According to the notice, they will at least face "criticism" — and those whose smoking has a "negative impact" will be "seriously dealt with."

Despite repeated efforts to clear the air in China’s public spaces, few legal consequences await non-compliant smokers. Authorities can (but rarely do) fine and prosecute operators of public places for failing to address "incidents harmful to health" on their premises, yet there are no legal penalties for the individuals lighting up. Smoking is ingrained in Chinese government and business culture; colleagues and would-be collaborators share cigarettes to demonstrate respect. Making matters worse, the country’s state-owned tobacco industry fights other government entities’ efforts at reducing smoking. Since the monopoly generates $95 billion in annual tax revenue, and China remains the world’s largest producer and consumer of tobacco, the industry usually wins.

Pitted against such a goliath, a stern warning doesn’t seem to stand much of a chance. But government warnings directed at cadres, however vaguely worded, can have teeth. For example, Chinese sales of luxury products, including expensive alcohol, fell sharply after President Xi Jinping announced a campaign against officials’ extravagance in June 2013. But exhortations to cadres to follow pre-existing rules have a hidden risk if they imply that the law itself isn’t enough to dissuade official disobedience. China’s widely read Legal Daily argued that implementation, not publicity, is the key. "Laws must be enforced," the paper wrote on Dec. 28 of municipal smoking restrictions in the northern Chinese city of Changchun. "Otherwise, there will be orders but no actions, and restrictions will fail to restrict."

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