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One Man’s Battle to Make China Smoke-free

Although the Chinese government is implementing more measures to counter smoking, the country is estimated to have more than 300 million smokers. Zhang Yue, “China’s First Anti-Smoking Campaigner” (“中国第一反烟人”) is determined to single-handedly pull the cigarettes out of their mouths and make China smoke-free.

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Although the Chinese government is implementing more measures to counter smoking, the country is estimated to have more than 300 million smokers. Zhang Yue, “China’s First Anti-Smoking Campaigner” (“中国第一反烟人”) is determined to single-handedly pull the cigarettes out of their mouths and make China smoke-free.

Zhang Yue (张跃) is no ordinary person. The self-proclaimed “top anti-smoking fighter” has been campaigning for a smoke-free China for over 18 years . On his publicity tours, that took him to more than 386 cities, he creates awareness for the dangers of smoking.

Global Times reports how Zhang usually starts these trips by visiting crowded places like bus stops, metro stations or markets, where he strikes up a conversation with smokers and hands them pamphlets about the risks of smoking. He then shocks smokers by pulling the cigarette from their lips. He sometimes does this to over ten people within thirty minutes.

zhangsmokingchinaZhang surprises a smoker by grabbing the cigarette from his mouth (Phoenix News).

Zhang’s crusade against smoking and his confrontational methods have popped up in Chinese media since 2003 (see China Daily).

Zhang started his no-smoking mission after the tragic death of his sister, who died of a brain tumor at the age of 26. Zhang was convinced that his father’s heavy smoking habits played a role in his sister’s death, as she had always been in good health prior to her tumor. After successfully helping his younger brother quit smoking, Zhang also persuaded twelve of his family members to stop smoking. Since 2001, he has devoted his life to help all smokers of China to quit their habit.

A money-making national pastime 

Smoking is a national pastime in China. It is very common for Chinese men to offer a cigarette when meeting someone – it’s a conversation starter and a way of social bonding. Over time, smoking has become an integral part of how many Chinese men socialize.

Apart from the social aspect, the popularity of smoking is also linked to economics. China is the largest manufacturer and consumer of tobacco in the world. The country employs a massive labor force devoted to tobacco farming, manufacturing and sales. Tobacco sales also provide 7% of the Central Government’s annual revenue, which is a substantial amount in taxes and net income.

A gendered phenomenon that kills

According to the authors of a new study, reported about by Quartz, “about two-thirds of young Chinese men become cigarette smokers, and most start before they are 20. Unless they stop, about half of them will eventually be killed by their habit.”

The study notes that although many women have begun taking to smoking, it still remains a highly gendered activity, with around 68% of Chinese men smoking, compared to 3.2 % of Chinese women. Another study by the National Center for Biotechnology Information in the United States has reported that with a population of over 300 million smokers, China is currently at risk of losing more than 90 million people to this habit. This is also a reason for concern as smoking threatens to wipe out the productive population that China increasingly needs to continue its growth momentum.

The Party’s new anti-smoking route

After repeated attempts and failings, the Party has started to take the problem of smoking more serious. Although China’s previous leaders were often seen smoking, Xi Jinping has set a new example by quitting.

In 2011, China’s Ministry of Health guidelines banned smoking in all public places nationwide such as hotels and restaurants. As the ban was largely ignored, stricter regulations went into effect in Beijing in June 2015. These regulations also cracked down on tobacco advertising.

The Party’s new anti-smoking route was also apparent during the National People’s Congress meeting this year;  different from other years, there were no smoking areas for delegates in their hotel and conference rooms, or elsewhere in the indoor public places. They had been advised to follow Beijing’s smoking ban during the two-week annual session .

But for Zhang Yue, the Party’s anti-smoking campaigns cannot be rigorous enough and he hopes that China will soon be completely smoke-free: “China has 350 million smokers,” he tells Global Times: “that’s almost the population of the US. Even though it’s a distant goal, I’ll sacrifice everything to get there”.

Right motives, wrong behavior?

News about Zhang’s mission and his action to pull cigarettes from people’s mouths has got Weibo’s netizens talking. “His motives are good, but his actions are stupid,” one netizen comments. “He has no right to steal people’s cigarettes,” another Weibo user says.

Although most netizens seem to disagree with Zhang’s tactics, some think he’s right: “I support him. I’ve smoked for over ten years and then just quit. I wished more people would.”

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Zhang’s campaign goes beyond the streets of China –  he is also active on Chinese social media. On Weibo, Zhang has an official Weibo page named ‘The Old Man’s Long March Against Smoking‘. With less than 8900 online fans, he does not have the millions of followers he would probably like to have – but at least it’s a start.

Update March 23 by editor: Shortly after this article was published, the Weibo account of “The Old Man’s Long March Against Smoking” (“反烟人长征愚公”的微博) disappeared, which is why the link is no longer working.

– By Mahalakshmi Ganapathy

Images by Phoenix News  and Mianyang Local News Weibo Page.
Weibo comments & editing by Manya Koetse.

©2016 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

About the author: Mahalakshmi Ganapathy is a Shanghai-based Sinologist-to-be, pursuing her graduate degree in Chinese Politics at East China Normal University. Her interests include Sino-India comparative studies and Chinese political philosophy.

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China and Covid19

Video Shows Real-Time “Departure” Information Board at Chinese Crematorium

From “cremation in process” to “cooling down,” the digital display shows the progress of the cremation to provide information to those waiting in the lobby. The crematorium ‘departure’ board strikes a chord with many.

Manya Koetse

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A video showing a live display screen announcing the names and status of the deceased at a Yunnan crematorium has been making its rounds on Chinese social media, from WeChat to Weibo, where one version of the video received over 1,7 million views.

Somewhat similar to a real-time platform departure display on train stations, the screen shows the waiting number of the deceased person, their name, gender, the name of the lounge/room (if any) for families, the name of the crematorium chamber, and the status of the cremation process. Below in the screen, it says “the final journey of a warm life” (温暖人生的最后旅程).

For example, the screen displays the names of a Mr. Chen and a Mr. Li; their bodies were in the process of being cremated (火化中), while other cremations were marked as “completed” (完成) or “cooling down” (降温中).

Through such a screen, located in the crematorium lobby, family members and loved ones can learn about the progress of the cremation of the deceased.

The video, recorded by a local on Jan. 7, received many comments. Among them, some people commented on the information board itself, while others simply expressed grief over those who died and the fragility of life. Many felt the display was confronting and it made them emotional.

“It makes me really sad that this how people’s lives end,” one commenter said, with another person replying that the display also shows you still need to wait in line even when you’re dead.

“I didn’t expect the screens [in the crematorium] to be like those in hospitals, where patients are waiting for their turn,” another Weibo user wrote. “It would be better if the names were hidden, like in the hospitals, to protect the privacy of the deceased,” another person replied.

Others shared their own experiences at funeral parlors also using such information screens.

Another ‘departure display’ at a Chinese crematorium, image shared by Weibo user.

“My grandfather passed away last September, and when we were at the undertaker’s, the display was also jumping from one name to the other and we could only comfort ourselves knowing that he was among those who lived a relatively long life.”

“Such a screen, it really makes me sad,” another commenter from Guangxi wrote, with others writing: “It’s distressing technology.”

Although the information screen at the crematorium is a novelty for many commenters, the phenomenon itself is not necessarily related to the Covid outbreak and the number of Covid-related deaths; some people share how they have seen them in crematoriums before, and funeral parlor businesses have used them to provide information to families since at least 2018.

According to an article published by Sohu News, more people – especially younger ones – have visited a funeral home for the first time in their lives recently due to the current Covid wave, also making it the first time for them to come across such a digital display.

The online video of such an information board has made an impact at a time when crematoriums are crowded and families report waiting for days to bury or cremate their loved ones, with especially a large number of elderly people dying due to Covid.

On Jan. 4, one social media user from Liaoning wrote:

I really suggest that the experts go to the crematoriums to take a look. There is no place to put the deceased, they’re parked outside in temporary containers, there’s no time left to hold a farewell ceremony and you can only directly cremate, and for those who were able to have a ceremony, they need to finish within ten minutes (..) At the funeral parlor’s big screen, there were eight names on every page, and there were ten pages for all the people in line that day, I stood there for half an hour and didn’t see the name of the person I was waiting for pop up anymore.”

As the video of the display in the crematorium travels around the internet, many commenters suggest that it is not necessarily the real-time ‘departure’ board itself that bothers them, but how it shows the harsh reality of death by listing the names of the deceased and their cremation status behind it. Perhaps it is the contrast between the technology of the digital display boards and the reality of the human vulnerability that it represents that strikes a chord with people.

One blogger who reposted the video on Jan. 13 wrote: “Life is short, cherish the present, let’s cherish what we have and love yourself, love your family, and love this world.” Among dozens of replies, some indicate that the video makes them feel uncomfortable.

Another commenter also wrote:

I just saw a video that showed an electronic display at a crematorium, rolling out the names of the deceased and the stage of the cremation. One name represents the ending of a life. And it just hit me, and my tears started flowing. I’m afraid of parting, I’m afraid of loss, I just want the people I love and who love me to stay by my side forever. I don’t want to leave. I’m afraid I’ll be alone one day, and that nobody will ever make me feel warm again.”

One person captured why the information board perhaps causes such unease: “The final moments that people still spent on this earth take place on the electronic screen in the memorial hall of the funeral home. Then, they are gone without a sound.”

 

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By Manya Koetse 
with contributions by Zilan Qian

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©2023 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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China and Covid19

Chinese Social Media Users Respond to Covid-Related Death Toll

While many commenters support Chinese authorities for providing data on Covid-related deaths, some questioning the accuracy were censored.

Manya Koetse

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On January 14, 2023, Chinese health authorities officially disclosed the number of Covid-related deaths between 8 December and 12 January. According to Jiao Yahui (焦雅辉), director of the National Health Commission’s Bureau of Medical Administration, a total of 59,938 Covid deaths were recorded. This number only covers Covid-related deaths in Chinese hospitals.

This is the first time China has given an exact number on the number of Covid-related deaths since the ending of its ‘zero Covid’ policy in December.

Earlier this month, Chinese official media stated that it is difficult to accurately assess the death rate during the early stages of an epidemic, and that an accurate assessment would later be made. The last report only recorded 37 deaths between December 7 and January 8.

According to Jiao Yahui, the death toll includes 5503 cases of death due to Covid-related respiratory failure, and 54,435 cases already had underlying medical conditions before getting Covid. The reported average age at the time of death was 80.3 years old, with the overall majority of patients (90.1%) being 65 and older. 56.5% were 80 years or older.

These statements were made during a press conference, where the peak of the current Covid outbreak was also discussed. On January 2, 2023, emergency departments across China saw a peak in visits – over 1,5 million emergency department visits in one day, – after which the number started to decline again. That downward trend was also visible in the number of hospitalizations of Covid patients, which peaked on January 5 of this year with more than 1,6 million patients hospitalized with Covid.

The top comments on Weibo, underneath a post about the death toll by state media outlet Xinhua, all spoke out in support of authorities releasing these numbers.

“It’s good to seek truth from facts, I hope the deceased can rest in peace and condolences to those left behind,” the most popular comment said, with another saying: “The country really did all they could and paid a high price to protect the largest number of people possible.”

“Open and transparent,” was another recurring reply within the comment section, which was controlled and only displayed the comments that were selected by Xinhua (“以下为博主精选评论”).

On TikTok (Douyin), the topic also attracted online discussions, with some threads less controlled than the Xinhua one, such as one underneath a post by the China Business Newspaper (华商报): “This number only counts hospital [deaths], there’s still those who died at home. I hope there’s no illness in heaven,” one Douyin user wrote, another one adding: “This data is not clear. Going back home to the countryside, the whole journey to the county town, there were really too many funerals.”

There were also many commenters sharing their own stories about loved ones they have lost. “This morning, my maternal grandfather passed away because of Covid, I no longer have a grandfather now, it’s so hard to bear.” “My grandfather died, he passed away at home,” others shared.

“Among these deaths is my husband, he was only 32 years old,” one woman wrote.

The fact that China’s recent data on Covid-related deaths only counts those patients who were hospitalized is something that is mentioned a lot by Chinese netizens, who suggest the actual number of deaths must be much higher if it would include those who died at home. Other comments also suggested that the number of deaths in the hospitals might also be underreported, asking for more clarifications on how these deaths had been counted.

This was something that was also reiterated by the well-known political commentator Hu Xijin (@胡锡进), who published a commentary on the issue on Saturday. He wrote that the recent numbers should be regarded as “incomplete statistics” (“不完全统计”) at a time when accurately counting the deaths in the midst of this Covid outbreak is very difficult. Authorities therefore only released the number of Covid-related hospital deaths in a “great effort to be objective.”

But the well-known blogger ‘Burn Superman Abao’ (@烧伤超人阿宝), a burn specialist at a Beijing hospital, suggested that the numbers do not make a lot of sense:

In 2021, we had a total of 36,570 hospitals in the entire country, including 3275 tertiary hospitals; 10,848 secondary hospitals; 12,649 primary hospitals; 9798 non-classified hospitals. During the epidemic, most hospitals fully opened and all departments treated patients with respiratory problems in order to take on this epidemic wave. What’s the concept of 60,000 Covid-related deaths in hospitals in over a month? If we assume all deaths occurred in secondary and tertiary hospitals and other hospitals had no deaths, then in five weeks’ time, every secondary or lower-level hospital in China only had an average number of 4 patients dying of Covid. In other words, on average, less than one patient per week per hospital dying of Covid.”

Later, the post was no longer online and his account was temporarily locked. On Sunday, the doctor wrote: “I won’t say anything else. I feel drained.”

Some also refuted Abao’s critique, saying that many tertiary hospitals in places such as Suzhou, Hangzhou or Hefei were not nearly as crowded as those in Beijing, Shanghai, or Guangzhou, and that his claims could not be backed up by data.

One Weibo user wondered: “Is it possible, 60,000? Actually, it is not difficult to count the number [of deaths] – the crematoriums have all the data.”

Besides the discussions on the accuracy of China’s Covid death toll, there are also many commenters who just want to express sympathies and grief over all the lives that are lost: “I just hope they can rest in peace.”

Read more about the end of China’s ‘zero Covid’ policy here.

By Manya Koetse, with contributions by Miranda Barnes

 

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©2023 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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