The year of Woe
The Chinese New Year this time comes with more than its share of woes. Normally, it’s the poor migrant worker who has to deal with the hassles of getting a ticket to go back home. This time, there’s another category that’s also affected: the government official, hit hard by the austerity drive initiated by the new president. The drive is actually working; from wine companies to moon-cake manufacturers, everyone’s reeling.
Take the case of a calendar manufacturer in Wenzhou. The company had already packed its annual shipment of calendars to government offices when the cancellations started coming in. This year, there’s a ban on government officials exchanging calendars for the New Year, and the company stands to lose five million yuan.
That’s a piffling amount compared to the losses suffered by well-known restaurant chains in Beijing and Shanghai, thanks to the ban on extravagant official banquets. One of them had by August closed down eight of its branches. However, some officials have welcomed the ban — the daily drinking, they say, had been affecting their livers. But then that’s what they told the official paper.
But the same paper also reported that officials have found ways of getting around these bans. They’ve simply shifted the venues of their parties to far-off suburbs, or, even better, within government canteens. Chefs rendered jobless by the closure of expensive restaurants have been hired by government canteens which now resemble five-star dining halls. No commoner can go there, so officials can feast as stylishly as they wish, without having to stick to the “four dishes, one soup” rule laid down by President Xi Jinping.
The president himself ate less than four dishes when he dined at a regular eatery in Beijing last month. The meal he ate — vegetables, pork and spring onion dumplings, and pork liver and intestine soup, has become a hit at the restaurant. Interestingly, there’s been speculation online about who first posted the news about Xi’s visit on China’s Twitter. Was it a pleasantly surprised customer or was it an official? The censors’ order that all posts related to this speculation be removed gives a clue. Following this lunch, questions are being asked about when the last time was that heads of public sector undertakings dined with their workers.
Xi’s visit was part of the “mass line” he has directed party cadre to follow, a throwback to Mao’s policies. He has also asked party members to desist from the four vices of “formalism, bureaucratism, hedonism and extravagance’’, and laid down an eight-point code of conduct for officials. These include being in touch with the grassroots; not attending inaugurations and seminars without permission from the party; reducing the perks of office such as foreign trips, traffic hold-ups, official documents, media coverage of official functions and self-promotional press releases. The last year was marked by a series of official bans: on new government buildings; on serving cigarettes, liquor, shark-fin soup, bird’s nest and other wild animal products at official banquets; on extravagant weddings; on hotel suites for lower level officials; on receiving and giving gifts, including moon cakes, for Chinese New Year; on spending public money on fireworks; even on smoking in public.
Of the thousands of officials punished for violating these bans, only 32 have been senior. Nevertheless, the entire class is pretty shaken up, going by the reactions of those surveyed by the Beijing News. Corroborating their claims was a bank PR executive who said she was being routinely turned away by public sector managers, including her regular clients, when she went with the customary ‘red envelope’ containing cash for New Year.