‘Smoke or Else’ Edict Indicates Deeper Problem in China

‘Smoke or Else’ Edict Indicates Deeper Problem in China

Last week, officials in Gong'an county in China's Hubei province were forced to withdraw an order issued in March requiring civil servants to smoke at least 230,000 packs of locally produced cigarettes each year, or else face a fine if they failed to meet their targets. The order was withdrawn not due to intervention from the central government in Beijing, but rather due to overwhelming public outrage, demonstrating how so often in China, the farcical corruption of many local officials is held in check only by the decency and common sense of ordinary citizens.

Although this short drama was absurd and ultimately harmless, it offers a glimpse into the dysfunctional reality of many Chinese counties that are governed by mandarins beyond the reach of superiors in Beijing.

Local governments in China can impose taxes and duties on locally produced products, such as bricks and bicycles, while products produced in other counties are beyond the reach of their grabbing hands. In Gong'an county, officials relied on locally produced cigarettes for their revenue. The infamous "smoke or else" edict was issued to help the local tobacco industry in the face of competition from cigarettes produced elsewhere. In Gong'an, even the discovery of cigarette butts from other counties was a finable offense.

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