Yesterday on June 1, when I was in the underground tunnel crossing into Tian’anmen, I saw an interesting sign. It said “everyone has a right to breathe fresh air.” It had pictures of someone’s lungs/heart getting ruined, and it was asking people not to smoke in public places. It was shocking, really shocking – I’ve never seen anything like that in China in all my years there.
Later, when I came back to my in-laws’ home in the countryside of Hangzhou, I then saw an ad on TV decrying the harmfulness of smoking, and asking people to quit. Again, my jaws dropped.
As much as I dislike smoking, I know this is going to be hard fight. And that’s not just because I saw many Beijingers puffing away in complete disregard for the no smoking signs in restaurants. It’s because it’s such an integral part of being a man in China.
In the beginning, when China opened up, smoking was a way for men to display one’s wealth. Now, of course, cigarettes are a pretty common thing in China, so it has become a part of being a socialized Chinese man.
Chinese men have a lot of pressure, as my friend Peter Pi, in Beijing, mentioned — and few outlets for relaxation, especially out in the countryside. In the countryside, there are no libraries, no gyms, no nothing – just the bars, so all Chinese men have to do to relax themselves is smoking (and drinking, of course).
And, as all of us know, smoking happens in some of the most inopportune and surprising places in China. Offices. Elevators. Buses and trains (especially the really slow trains). Even your own home (today, when the installation guy came over to put in our DSL, when he had a moment to wait, he threw a cigarette in his mouth and was all ready to light up until I respectfully asked him not to). People here just don’t have the belief that there is anything wrong with exposing others to secondhand smoke — even their own children or pregnant wives.
But this campaign is the first sign of a changing tide, though slow moving it may be. After all, didn’t America go through its period of gratuitous smoking (remember those ads where doctors recommended cigarette brands?).