At the dinner my CEO was seated to the right of the top official, and I found myself sitting next to one of the guys in official's entourage. My dinner companion lighted up during the meal, and I remarked that he was not smoking Panda Cigarettes, which I had heard were very hard to get. I knew this from an article in the WSJ last year, which someone else posted here:
The demand for Pandas is testament to China's nicotine addiction, as well as their strong link to Deng Xiaoping, the heavy smoker who brought capitalism to communist China. Deng was rarely photographed without a Panda, and is said to have gone on lighting up until shortly before his death in 1997 at 92.
Communist founder Mao Zedong smoked them. Army generals developed a taste for them. After Deng's death, the manufacturer began to release small quantities of the cigarettes into the infant free market the late leader's reforms had created -- though at eye-poppingly high prices.
My dinner companion looked at me and said, "Yes, they are very difficult to get." He then got out his phone and made a call. Thinking he had business to take care of, I went back to my meal.
Five minutes later a flunky came in and handed the guy a carton of Pandas, which were then ceremoniously presented to everyone in the U.S. group. Being the smart-ass I was and setting this chain of events in motion, I now HAD to light up. This guy just did me a favor, and now I to give him face.
They are actually pretty smooth, which is a good thing since this non-smoker had to keep lighting up for the rest of the meal along with my companion. The other guys in my group ended up giving me their packs after the meal, so I am now walking around Asia with a bunch of Pandas.
I thought it was pretty neat to be walking around with such a status symbol (albeit a communist one) until I was leaving the country. The Duty Free stores at the airport had boxes of them, so I think they are hard to get if you are IN China. If you are passing through with money to burn, they are just another item they have for sale.