New York Times
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Mar 28, 2013
BEIJING >> Life for the almighty Chinese government official has come to this: car pools, domestically made wristwatches and self-serve lunch buffets.
In the four months since he was anointed China’s paramount leader and tastemaker-in-chief, President Xi Jinping has imposed a form of austerity on the nation’s famously free-spending civil servants, military brass and provincial party bosses. Warning that graft and gluttony threaten to bring down the ruling Communists, Xi has ordered an end to boozy, taxpayer-financed banquets and the bribery that often takes the form of a gift-wrapped Louis Vuitton bag.
While the power of the nation’s elite remains unchallenged, the symbols of that power are slipping from view. Gone, for now, are the freshly cut flowers and red-carpet ceremonies that used to greet visiting dignitaries. Earlier this month, military officers who arrived here for the annual National People’s Congress were instructed to share hotel rooms and bring their own toiletries.
“Car-pooling feels so good because it provides a way to bond and chat with each other while saving money and increasing efficiency,” one senior military official told the People’s Liberation Army newspaper.
Not everyone has been so embracing of the change. Last week, the country’s top disciplinary body dismissed six functionaries, including a neighborhood party chief who spent $63,000 to entertain 80 colleagues at a seaside resort, and a county official who marked the opening of new administrative offices by throwing a feast for 290 people.
The crackdown appears to be real, as far as it goes, which may not be very far. After a year of scandal that led to the toppling of a member of the Politburo, Bo Xilai, and numerous reports of widespread official corruption, Xi’s highly public campaign seems aimed at curtailing the most conspicuous displays of wealth by people in power. He has done little to tackle the concentrations of money and power in China’s state-directed economy that have allowed numerous members of the Chinese elite and their extended families to amass extravagant fortunes.
Some analysts note that even a modest first step toward reducing corruption, a proposed regulation that would require top officials to publicly disclose their personal assets, appears to be stalled, highlighting the elite’s resistance to real change.
Wu Qiang, a political-science professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing, expressed cynicism about the moderation campaign, saying that it distracted attention from the kinds of political reform necessary to make government more accountable and transparent.
“More than just restricting people’s eating habits, we need to restrain the party’s power. Otherwise this is just political farce,” he said.
Even so, Xi has garnered attention and some praise for his eight-point guide for official conduct, which he issued in January. Xi warned that his administration would swat both “tigers and flies” in an anti-corruption drive which he said was vital for winning back public trust.
“If we don’t redress unhealthy tendencies and allow them to develop, it will be like putting up a wall between our party and the people, and we will lose our roots, our lifeblood and our strength,” Xi said.
Xi’s campaign even has a new catchphrase, based on his vision of gastronomic self-restraint: “Four dishes and a soup.”
So far, most victims of the frugality drive have been purveyors of the good life: high-end caterers, abalone wholesalers, five-star hotels and makers of Yellow Pavilion cigarettes, the $300-a-carton brand coveted by up-and-coming bureaucrats.
The ripple effects have reached all corners of the economy. First-class airline ticket sales have dropped by a tenth in recent months, and luxury goods dealers have reported a 20 percent to 30 percent decrease in sales. Moutai, the $600-a-bottle gut-searing rice liquor that is an omnipresent intoxicant at official banquets, has seen its growth slow by more than 20 percentage points recently.
The China Cuisine Association said that 60 percent of restaurants surveyed last month had experienced a drop in reservations, with government-sponsored banquets down by nearly a third compared with the same period last year. Shen Danyang, a Ministry of Commerce spokesman who in normal times champions consumer spending, seemed to relish this particular slowdown. During a news conference last month, he noted that sales of shark fins had dropped more than 70 percent, and sales of edible swallow nests, the main ingredient of a $100-a-bowl delicacy, were down 40 percent.
To ensure compliance, government investigators have descended on restaurants to comb through receipts in search of large tabs suggesting abusive spending.
“Even the big bosses are staying away from fancy restaurants and switching their expensive European wristwatches for Chinese brands until things calm down,” said one administrator from China’s southwestern Yunnan province.
Those who sell cigarette and alcohol say the drop in business has been painful.
“I don’t know how much longer I can survive,” said Li Liuyuan, the owner of a liquor store who is going to give more than half his business space to a fruit salesman.
Not surprisingly, the campaign is winning high marks from a citizenry long disgusted by the outlandish spending and other acts of arrogance.
“It awakens the faith of the masses,” said Wang Yukai, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Governance.
In the meantime, restaurants like Xiang E Qing, a chain once popular with government employees, have been left to figure out a way to survive.
At the headquarters for China’s armed police, where two branches of the restaurant face each another across a courtyard packed with government-issued Audis, business was down by a third, officials said. The drop in revenue prompted the company to mothball one of the two restaurants, cut prices on some dishes and start offering half-size dishes to demonstrate the company’s dedication to Xi’s moderation credo.
To drive home the point, LED screens at the entrances to the restaurant’s 35 private dining rooms admonish patrons to “Order according to your needs.”
Waiters, whose salaries are partly based on commissions, have seen their salaries drop by a third, forcing many to quit. But many remaining employees say they support the new frugality.
“I’d rather see our tax dollars being spent on the poor than paying for government banqueting,” Cui Fei, 24, said, standing in a nearly empty dining room one recent afternoon.
Those on the receiving end of socially obligated self-indulgence are also feeling some relief. One entrepreneur, who dines almost nightly with government officials and business associates and did not want to be identified as a result, said such invitations had dropped by half.
“The nightly drinking takes a serious toll,” he said, expressing no regret at forgoing the mandated Maotai toasts.
But old ways die hard.
In its investigation into continued abuses, the state-run Xinhua news agency decried “double-dealing officials who chant frugality slogans but secretly hold extravagant banquets.” Xinhua also discovered a new catchphrase popular among government officials: “Eat quietly, take gently and play secretly.”