While smoking has become a furtive, clandestine act in the Western democracies, China is the world’s biggest tobacco consumer, and 68 per cent of Chinese men smoke. With such an overwhelming majority, not smoking may well look like stepping out of line. And not smoking in deference to local custom in an area under a crackdown, while being a Communist Party official and a smoker, may look like an act of rebellion.
Respecting tradition in Xinjiang, Jelil Matniyaz did not smoke in the presence of clerics, and was reduced to the ranks in the hierarchy of the apparat. A naming and shaming notice demoted the party chief of a village in Hotan from “senior staff member” to “staff member”. While the rest of the named and shamed stood accused of muscular misdemeanours like bribery, Matniyaz was punished for “infirm political stands”, one of which was his inability to reach for the cancer sticks in the presence of religious figures.
While the action looks like a throwback to old-style communism, when people were denounced for weird crimes like being “running dogs”, it is actually part of the ongoing crackdown on Uighur citizens, who have been restive over the settling of Han Chinese in their territory, where terrorist attacks are commonplace. It’s like Tibet all over again. Recently, the party issued a diktat against “abnormal” beards, in a bid to force traditional Muslims of Xinjiang to trim down. Clearly, showing respect to local clerics the local way, by not smoking, was a no-no. In fact, the demoted official was probably expected to blow blue smoke rings in their faces. In its notice, the party has said that smoking must be respected for it reflects individual choice. How strange it is to see China’s rulers supporting individualism, the Holy Grail of the West.