My friends and I celebrated International Women's Day on Monday by going to dinner at a restaurant near our office. While we were still looking at the menu, we suddenly found ourselves surrounded by cigarette smoke. More than a dozen men had just taken their seats at nearby tables and immediately lit up.
We abandoned our table by the window for another, but were soon assaulted by smoke from a nearby table. Looking around, I didn't see a single "No Smoking" sign in the restaurant, nor was there any division between smoking and non-smoking areas.
I knew there was no point in raising the matter with the restaurant's owner. I remember having lunch in the non-smoking section of another restaurant, where several customers were nonetheless smoking. The smokers refused to put out their cigarettes even when an attendant asked them to.
You wouldn't know it, but Beijing was one of the first cities in China to ban smoking in public places. The Beijing municipal people's congress passed the law at the end of 1995 and it took effect the following year. The municipal government later amended the law and extended the ban to many more public places. The amended regulations went into effect in May 2008, three months before the Beijing Olympics.
The Olympics gave the city's effort to ban smoking a boost. Today, we see fewer people smoking in shopping malls and department stores, and almost none in cinemas and theaters.
However, restaurants and bars seem to be a stronghold for smokers. The lure of a cigarette with a drink or after a meal apparently is too much to resist, and few restaurant owners are willing to risk driving away customers by enforcing the law.
Similarly, vested interests have prevented other laws from protecting the rights of Chinese citizens.
Consider, for example, the Law on Compulsory Education. As amended in 2006, the law stipulates that local governments must provide equal educational opportunities for all school-age children who reside in their jurisdictions, even though the children do not have legal residency, or hukou.
However, Beijing's public schools still ask for an array of certifications before the children of migrant workers are admitted, and the city has approved only 64 semi-private schools for these children. More than 200 other schools still operate with little support from the local government.
Just recently, we have learned that thousands of children of migrant workers in Beijing have had to transfer to schools further away from the city center because their old schools were either bulldozed or were about to be demolished to make way for development projects.
Development, of course, will enrich the city's coffers; educating the children of migrant workers will not. So it is not surprising that local governments were slow to address the problems the children of the migrant workers face when their schools were forced to close down at the turn of the new year.
Environment protection in China has run into similar problems. The Law on Environmental Protection was passed on Dec 26, 1989, and took effect the same day.
Since then, however, industries have thrived, and cities and towns have prospered, at the expense of the environment. In January, the first national environmental census confirmed what was common knowledge: China's air, soil, and water are more polluted now than they were 20 years ago.
Researchers predicted that environmental pollution in China would peak at an earlier stage of development than in many developed countries. But tragically, the increase in cancer and congenital diseases is irrefutable evidence that this has not occurred.
It is all well and good for our leaders and representatives to pass laws protecting the environment or mandating universal education; however, nothing is achieved unless the laws are enforced. It is time the government stood up to vested interests and protected the well-being of the people by upholding the law.
(China Daily 03/11/2010 page9)