Shops selling colorful backpacks and overpriced vintage clothes line Beijing's Gulou East Road, perhaps China's version of London's Camden Town. The atmosphere is bohemian, touristy, and incredibly smoky. Numbering ever more than the stores selling distressed jeans are restaurants, and during my Tuesday night visit almost every diner not holding chopsticks was clutching a cigarette.
Topping up pollution-shriveled lungs with cigarettes in one of the world's smoggiest cities might not seem clever — but in Beijing, smoking is as deeply ingrained as drunk karaoke and loudly gobbing up phlegm. However, the population's much-loved vice is set to be tested from June 1 when the city's newest and biggest attempt at a smoking ban kicks in. Smoking in indoor public spaces and certain outside areas including hospital and school grounds will be forbidden.
Smoking at bars will soon be banned in Beijing — whether anyone will pay attention to the rules is a different matter. Photo by Aaron Berkovich.
It's certainly not the first time a smoking ban has been attempted here, but on this occasion the authorities have a new trick up their sleeves — appealing to a well-worn Chinese tradition of trying to turn its citizens against one another. People are being asked to take covert photos or videos of smokers and send them to a public account that's been set up on WeChat, the Chinese version of WhatsApp. Officials will then be dispatched to the scene of the crime, with an emphasis on punishing establishments rather than smokers. Fines will be up to 200 Yuan ($32) for individuals and up to 10,000 Yuan ($1,612) for establishments. Repeat venue owner offenders face multiple fines and the removal of their licenses.
And that's not all — Beijing's municipal government is even trying to invent a new sign language. The public is being asked to vote for which of the following three hand signals they would prefer to use as a "Stub that thing out now!" message for smokers they don't have the guts to actually talk to.
Hand gestures signaling "Please stop," "I do mind," and "Don't." Beijing citizens are being asked to vote on which should become officially-recognized body language. Photo via China Association on Tobacco Control
Not everyone is impressed. "People like me who have smoked for a long time already see it as too big a part of our lives to give up," said Wang Aiyu, a 30-year-old musical instrument shop worker who was sparking up when I stopped him in the street. "Here it's an ingrained habit, like brushing your teeth or washing your face. So I wouldn't be afraid of people taking photos of me smoking or making hand signals at me — I wouldn't care." He added that he started smoking when he was 8.
Wang Aiyu has been smoking since he was 8 and doesn't plan to stop any time soon. Photo by Aaron Berkovich
Making the ban work will be a mammoth task. Around a quarter of all Chinese people smoke — totaling around 300 million smokers in a 1.3 billion-strong population. About a million Chinese people die tobacco-related deaths every year, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), a figure predicted to reach three million by 2050 if current smoking rates continue. If the Beijing ban is successful in reducing smoking it is likely to be rolled out across the country.
Previous attempts to clamp down have sputtered and failed, with rules introduced in 2011 going ignored and unenforced. A short ban on smoking was implemented in most public places in Beijing during the 2008 Olympics, but was seemingly designed to be an international image booster rather than a longterm health policy.
Wu Yiqun is deputy chief of the China Tobacco Control Resource Center (CTCRC), a research center endorsed by the Ministry of Health. He said that the fact that venues will now be culpable for violations makes this ban different to previous attempts. "It has been laid out clearly that venue owners need to be responsible," he said. "That is a big incentive to comply, rather than just having a few people walking around on the street supervising and writing tickets."
Dr Bernhard Schwartländer, the WHO's representative in Beijing, agrees. "What was lacking before was implementation: What happens if you don't adhere to the law? What do you do if you see a smoker? Ask them to put their cigarette out? Tell a policeman? The new rule is clear — if an owner doesn't act on a complaint the health inspectors can come in. This is a big, big, big difference."
Still, when it comes to venue rules in China, the classic "Some are more equal than others" mantra often kicks in hard. I visited Liu Fei, the chain smoking 31-year-old owner of School Bar, a small sweatbox gig venue near Gulou East Road. During a marathon boozing and smoking session he said he expected small venues such as his to be getting the most stern door knocks from authorities.
"It'll be interesting to see how this affects the karaoke places and saunas, the places visited by big brothers [rich men with clout] who wear golden chains," he said. "Those places have connections or might just be fucking 'gangster.' Rules like this tend to apply to some places, like my bar, but not others, so I think those other kinds of places will get away with it."
Liu Fei (right) thinks small venues like his School Bar (pictured) will bear the brunt of Beijing's smoking ban. Photo by Aaron Berkovich
He's got a point. It's hard to imagine the owner of a bling Beijing club such as Circle or Mix asking a pissed tuhau — Chinese slang for a newly-moneyed man who flaunts his wealth — to put out his cigarette before buying another $3,000 bottle of champagne. Or for a clubber on the VIP table next to them to get their gold iPhone 6 out and report them.
Unlike Wang, Liu did think that many members of Beijing's younger generation would comply with the ban. "There are a lot of smart young people in Beijing," he said, undermining his statement a touch by adding that he started smoking aged nine. "They'll be understanding of things like this and be okay with it, so we'll just set up an outside smoking area. But for older people it'll be a different story. Imagine walking up to an old man smoking in a restaurant with friends and asking him to stop. He'll smash the place, and unlucky owners will be the ones taking the fall."
The authorities are also going after the advertisers. An amendment to an advertising law was passed last week that makes all business-to-consumer tobacco advertising, except inside tobacco product shops, illegal. It brings China in line with the WHO's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, that it signed in 2003, which requires members to "comprehensively ban all tobacco advertising, promotion, and sponsorship."
But more subtle marketing techniques are far harder to clamp down on. In many western countries cigarette packets are required by law to be adorned with pictures of tumour-riddled lungs and other warning images. The CTCRC's Wu Yiqin pointed out that China's comparatively lax packaging rules had been exploited.
"I recently visited a scenic spot in Wuhan called Huang He Lou, it was beautiful, he said. "There is a famous brand of cigarette called Huang He Lou, they even have pictures of the area on the packs. It's difficult for us to break through this style of marketing. Another example: In China we say that historically lots of beautiful girls came from Nanjing, and there's a series of cigarettes called '12 Beauties of Nanjing.'"
Chinese cigarette packaging is highly decorative and lacking in gruesome images of blackened lungs or decayed gums. Photos by Aaron Berkovich
A WHO investigation on the top six countries for smoking figures found that children's recognition of cigarette boxes and packaging in China was greater than anywhere else in the world, he added. "Cigarettes are embedded with culture but really, when you market cigarettes you market death."
But clearly, it works. Last year the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CCDCP) found that 6.9 percent of junior school students in China smoked. Among children aged five and six, 85 percent could identify at least one cigarette brand. Around half of all students between 13 and 15 years old had been exposed to tobacco advertisement in the month previous to the survey.
The smoking ban, if implemented properly (and that's a Great Wall-sized 'if'), will be an important step in reducing soaring smoking statistics like these. But how effective can a ban on sparking up in public places be, when so many people are long-term smokers by the time they're old enough to start visiting restaurants and bars in the first place?
"It's easy to buy cigarettes when you're a kid — I was in grade five when I started smoking," said School Bar owner Liu. "I don't regret starting. When you're in primary school and you smoke you're badass. That's the environment. Your dad, your uncle, all the adults smoke."
Dr Schwartländer acknowledged that preventing kids from smoking was an issue arguably even more important than that of smoking in public. With cigarettes usually costing between 10 and 20 Yuan ($1.60 to $3.20) per packet they're just too pocket money-friendly. "I can't be confident in a timeline for an increase on tobacco tax," he said.
"That's an area where China is not at the same level as the public space ban push," he added. "And we do need to push it. If people don't start smoking as minors it [works] almost like a vaccine - they're much less likely to take it up later. Also, education for parents needs to be more radical. Even with one person in a car smoking, the second-hand smoke for a child in the back is worse than a very bad air pollution day outside."
Despite challenges such as these Dr Schwartländer was excited about the prospect of the Beijing ban igniting a China-wide norm. "I've already had authorities in Shanghai asking for the WHO to support them too," he said. "We're confident it can be used as a trailblazer."
We'll find out from June if he's right.
Follow Jamie Fullerton on Twitter: @jamiefullerton1
Additional reporting by Jiehao Chen