Everyone has a right to clean air — a no smoking campaign in Beijing

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?).

The most curiously Chinese Letter-and-Visits (Xinfang) Bureau

As I walked over to the Beijing apartment of my dear friend Peter, he happened to point out the Xinfang Bureau, perhaps one of the most quintessentially Chinese government inventions.

The Xinfang Bureau’s entire reason for existence is to process any written or in-person complaints about other government bureaus. At least, it’s supposed to. And it’s meant to suggest that the government is taking care of internal problems.

However, Peter said that sometimes there is a van parked outside so that, if large groups come to file a complaint, they will be directed to the van, and shipped off to somewhere else. :-/


Foreigner’s Guide to Bicycling in China: everything you ever (and in some cases perhaps never) wanted to know about bicycling in the Middle Kingdom

Foreward: I wrote this several years ago and, just recently, one of the members of my writer’s group mentioned how much she loved it. So, I’m kicking off the “new version” of Speaking of China with this classic article. Enjoy!


When in China, do as the Chinese do: bicycle. Of all the transportation possibilities available, it perhaps offers you the some of the most freedom and flexibility. No more traffic jams. No more catching the latest flu or virus in crowded buses and subways. No more fighting for a taxi during rush hour. No more being a moving target on the sidewalks.

Sounds great, right?

Yet, your enthusiasm may not find a home with your foreign colleagues. Many people shun bicycling for a variety of reasons: safety, inconvenience and even fear. Talk to a few folks and you might even hear some disconcerting tales of woe. Things such as hitting an elderly Chinese man – resulting in the poor fellow’s death – and then having to fork out $10,000 for your little oversight (a true story from a former coworker of mine).

Is cycling worth the price? I can’t tell you any feel-good-miraculous-Lance-Armstrong tale. Heck, I once had a little fender bender and handed over 100 RMB for damages. But I do know one thing – I could have avoided this and many other troubles if I’d known a little more before hitting the road.

With that in mind, I bring you the official “Foreigner’s Guide to Bicycling in China”: everything you ever (and in some cases perhaps never) wanted to know about bicycling in the Middle Kingdom. Continue reading “Foreigner’s Guide to Bicycling in China: everything you ever (and in some cases perhaps never) wanted to know about bicycling in the Middle Kingdom”