China: Tobacco and Belt and Road Initiative – the new ‘Go Global’?

Jennifer Fang

China National Tobacco Company (CNTC) is the world’s largest manufacturer of cigarettes, accounting for a third of the total global output. The powerful state-owned tobacco monopoly, previously focused on the vast domestic market with 350 million smokers, has been nurturing growing global ambitions since the early 2000s. Faced by an increasingly saturated domestic market and the potential for stricter tobacco control regulation, CNTC adopted the central government’s “Go Global” strategy in 2003, to replace lost domestic revenue with exports. It has since expanded its global reach to 20 countries, operating through 34 off-shore facilities, which include sales offices, manufacture plants, and specialized procurement companies.

The One Belt One Road strategy, also known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), is President Xi Jinping’s signature foreign policy launched in 2013. The ambitious infrastructure initiative is comprised of two parts: overland Silk Road Economic Belt, linking western China to Europe through Central Asia and the Middle East along the ancient trading route; and the Maritime Silk Road, connecting coastal China to Europe through South-East Asia and East Africa. To date, more than 125 countries have joined and more are expected to sign up. The BRI mainly focuses on infrastructure development (such as rail, roads and ports), trade, and culture and tourism. As with other government initiatives, state-owned enterprises will be expected to be “dragon heads” and lead by example.

CNTC, as a key state-owned enterprise, has indicated willingness to be a leader in the initiative back in 2015, when then-director Ling Chengxing emphasised the importance of using the opportunity of “the national implementation of BRI…to accelerate industry’s ‘Go global’ development”. In 2017, BRI was officially adopted by the Chinese tobacco industry, as the State Tobacco Monopoly Administration issued a “Work plan on the tobacco industry participating in One Belt One Road to implement ‘Go Global’ development”.

Specifically, the Work plan calls for market expansion in BRI countries and support for the construction of off-shore production facilities. BRI countries, especially those in Central Asia and the Middle East, are seen as particularly attractive for market expansion, as they remain relatively underserved and not yet dominated by the transnational tobacco companies. With these countries accounting for 54.1% of global tobacco sales, the potential for growth is enormous. In line with past statements, CNTC anticipates the introduction of its products via Chinese workers, who will no doubt be recruited to work on infrastructure projects, and an expected influx of Chinese tourists, especially as China flexes its soft power by negotiating more favourable visa requirements. According to industry statements, CNTC’s market expansion is now focused on BRI’s emerging and growth markets, and includes monitoring for investment and joint venture opportunities, and market development

Domestic smoking rates in China declined for the first time in decades following 2015 tax increases, fueling CNTC’s international push. The unprecedented public listing of CNTC’s international arm – China Tobacco International – on the Hong Kong stock exchange in June 2019, is the strongest indicator to date of the industry’s globalisation ambitions. The move is expected to fund CNTC’s overseas ventures, as it aggressively expands into unknown markets. It appears that China’s push for political and economic dominance in the region via the BRI may need to come with a health warming.


Jennifer Fang is a Project Administrator and Research Fellow at the Global Tobacco Control Research Programme, Faculty of Health Sciences, Simon Fraser University, Canada. Her research mainly focuses on the Asian tobacco industries, with an emphasis on China.


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