Telling a Chengdu man to stop smoking around you can be life-threatening

Society & Culture

In Chengdu, smoking inside restaurants is still legal, and one man was willing to fight for his right to pollute.

china smoker
Wang Zhengwei / Reuters

Local authorities in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, have ordered a man to apologize and pay compensation following an altercation inside a restaurant where he was caught on camera hurling hotpot broth at a woman after she asked him to put out his cigarette.

The victim, surnamed Xiāo 肖, told (in Chinese) local news media that the incident happened on Monday when she was out dining with friends at a branch of the Three Frogs restaurant chain. Xiao said she had politely asked the man, who was sitting at the table next to her, to stop smoking, and explained that she had lung problems. He initially obliged. 

But the man soon lit up another cigarette. When Xiao asked him to extinguish it, he took offense and a row broke out.

The fight was captured on video (in Chinese) filmed by Xiao and uploaded to Weibo, where it has garnered more than 170 million views. In the clip, the smoker can be seen yelling aggressively at Xiao, threatening to smash her phone, calling her names, and cursing at her companions.

“It’s none of your business when and where I smoke. How much money have you spent in this restaurant? Who gave you the right to tell me not to smoke?” the man screams at Xiao.

Speaking to a male companion of Xiao’s, the assailant says, “You are not a man, so you don’t smoke!”

He also tries to defend his behavior by saying that it’s normal for people in Sichuan to smoke indoors. A few other customers in the restaurant nod in agreement, and the support encourages the man to escalate his attacks — to a point where he throws a bowl of hotpot soup onto Xiao and her friends. 

According to a Weibo post (in Chinese) that accompanied the video, Xiao wrote that she called the police on the attacker. He later apologized to her and agreed to compensate Xiao and her friends 1,000 yuan ($152) for dry-cleaning costs. She added that after the incident, the restaurant informed them that their entire meal would be on the house if they just left and stopped “making a scene.” But she insisted on staying and paying her own bill.

In a phone interview with Fengmian News, Xiao stressed (in Chinese) that she didn’t need an apology from the assailant, and that all she wanted to achieve by sharing her experience on social media was to raise awareness of the negative health effects caused by secondhand smoke. “People have the freedom to smoke, but they can’t force others to breathe secondhand smoke,” she said.

Xiao’s story struck an immediate chord on Weibo, with thousands praising her courage to speak up, and venting their own frustrations about smokers, who are apt to light up in enclosed spaces in China without regard for non-smoking signs. “I don’t care who you are, but it’s downright disrespectful and rude to smoke around people without asking if it’s okay with them,” a Weibo user wrote (in Chinese).

Others pointed fingers at the hotpot restaurant, accusing it of not doing enough to prevent the man from lighting up and attacking other patrons. But unlike in cities such as Shanghai and Beijing, there’s no smoking ban in Chengdu that prohibits cigarette users from puffing away in public spaces or requires restaurants to be smoke-free.

Still, on March 30, the parent company of the hotpot restaurant released a statement (in Chinese), stating that in the wake of the incident, it had fined the branch 50,000 yuan ($7,615) and ordered it to create a smoke-free environment for customers from now on. “We will revoke the restaurant’s franchise if something similar happens again,” the statement said.

Many critics also pointed out that misogyny played a role in how the dispute went down, because, as one person wrote (in Chinese), “men generally don’t like to be told by women what to do and what not to do.” Some argued that Xiao’s assailant would have taken her more seriously and be less inclined to attack her if she weren’t a woman. “When I’m nice, men think I’m an easy target of abuse. When I’m combative, they become angry,” a woman commented (in Chinese) on Weibo, saying that she was in awe of Xiao’s braveness.

But for Xiao, a women’s rights worker, her distress didn’t end here. Following her revelation, Xiao has become a target of misogynistic online trolls, who have latched onto her story and harassed her with threats and hateful messages on Weibo. In a screenshot (in Chinese) shared by a friend of Xiao’s, a man writes to Xiao, “You should be beaten to death. Women should be beaten to death. Next time you go out, someone should throw sulphuric acid at your face.”

With a goal to silence Xiao, a cohort of sexist trolls submitted mass complaints to Weibo, claiming that her online behavior was in violation of the platform’s rules. In response, Weibo suspended Xiao’s account.

Suggested for you