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'Fieldwork in the Chinese tobacco industry more likely to turn you into a drinker than a chain smoker'

This remarkable statement appears in Yi-Wen Cheng’s dissertation on state monopoly and forms of competition in the Chinese tobacco industry. Cheng presents her conclusions and looks back on her fieldwork. ‘I had to accept a lot of drinks in order to establish a network of contacts.’

How did you come to make this statement?

Bajiu is a very popular Chinese drink
Bajiu is a very popular Chinese drink

'China, the country with the world’s largest smoking population, has signed the World Health Organization convention aiming to discourage the use of tobacco. At the same time, the Chinese authorities are unwilling to take real measures, because more than seven percent of the national tax revenue comes from tobacco and cigarette excise duties. In order to avoid trouble, the tobacco industry keeps a low profile, which made it difficult for me to access informants who would be able to tell me about how the industry operates.’

How did you come into contact with informants?

Yi-Wen Cheng
Yi-Wen Cheng

‘In China women are more likely to be offered a drink than a cigarette. Women are not automatically expected to smoke, but drinking is less gender-specific. I therefore had to accept a lot of drinks in the course my fieldwork in order to establish a network of contacts. Refusing something that is offered is considered to be rude in the Chinese culture. I was usually offered Bajiu, a drink with more than 50% alcohol. The real challenge during fieldwork was how to accept the drink and still conduct the interviews without getting drunk.’

What did you investigate?

‘My study focuses on the tobacco industry as a case study to investigate the paradoxical phenomenon of intense competition within state monopolies, and how this phenomenon has developed over the last three decades. The tobacco industry is a state monopoly, but it is also the locus of a fierce competition between local providers in terms of price, product differentiation, advertising, etc.’

How did you conduct your research?

‘I conducted fieldwork in Yunnan, the most important tobacco province. I also spent time in Guizhou, Liaoning, Zhejiang, Beijing and Shanghai. In interviewed tobacco gurus, local administrators, tobacco producers and workers in the tobacco industry. This allowed me to map the entire process: from agriculture and production to trade.’

What is your conclusion?

‘The competition within this state monopoly results from the industry’s administrative structure. The interaction between local administrations and local agencies of the Chinese National Tobacco Corporation (CNTC) has created room for competition. The administrative structures and accompanying forms of competition have evolved in time. From quasi-free competition under the dual-track system (1982-1993), limited competition under local protection (1994-2004) to quasi-oligopoly competition (2005-2012): the market is dominated by a few large providers. In tracing this development it becomes clear how local administrations have become representatives of the CNTC, and how this indirectly strengthened both the control capabilities of the monopoly and the competition.’

What else did you notice about the Chinese smoking culture?

‘Among men it is a very common social practice to offer each other a cigarette, to demonstrate goodwill. The cigarette brand reflects both the social status of the person offering, and how much he values the person to whom he offers it. Some brands are perceived as being very luxurious and are therefore often used in bribery – another intriguing aspect of the Chinese smoking culture.’ 

(26 May 2015)

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