In at least one respect, visiting China is a little bit like traveling back in time to America in, say, 1957. (Or so I gather.) That is, people routinely smoke cigarettes in shopping malls, elevators, lines, apartment building hallways, schools, and yes, even hospitals. (Oh, and of course bars and restaurants.) Thus, the news that Beijing has just imposed a strict smoking ban in indoor public spaces in the city is a little bit surprising.
Technically, this is the third time the Chinese capital has banned public smoking. The previous attempts have manifestly failed; the last time I visited, the big change was that more people were now lighting up next to “no-smoking” signs. But this time, the authorities are supposedly serious. They’ll even start issuing fines to businesses that allow their patrons to smoke.
Yet China is a country where people often show scant respect for the laws. People drive down the wrong side of the roads; brothels operate in plain sight, despite the fact that prostitution is highly illegal; gypsy cabs ply the streets along with officially sanctioned taxis.
Local governments are also famous for ignoring the diktats that come from Beijing. A great example of this is golf course construction. In 2004, the Chinese government banned building new golf courses throughout the country. Yet over the next decade, hundreds of new courses were built with the approval of local governments who refused to kowtow to Beijing’s orders.
That’s a central irony about China that a lot of people miss. The Chinese political system is undeniably centralized and downright tyrannical. Sadly, the newly installed president Xi Jingping also appears to be significantly more repressive than his most recent predecessors.
But there is a freedom-loving spirit to the Chinese population that seems congenitally hostile to the concept of dictatorship and illegitimate governance. The idea seems to be, who are these unelected "leaders" to tell me where or when I can’t smoke? (Interestingly, Taiwan and Hong Kong, two parts of China that enjoy largely democratic governance, have smoking bans that are widely observed.) It’s enough to make one optimistic about the chance for a democratic future of the world’s most populous nation – if not about the lung health of its population.