- By Katelyn FossettKatelyn Fossett is an editorial researcher at Foreign Policy. A native of Kentucky, she has previously written for the Inter Press Service and Washington Monthly. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Columbia University.
In the aftermath of the Bo Xilai scandal, the Communist leadership in China has scrambled to push back against the party’s reputation of widespread corruption. Once known for lavish banquets and bribery so widespread that it propped up whole luxury markets, the party is taking on a wide range of reform efforts, some of which have been commendable and effective. But it has also been aiming at some odd targets — with this week’s ban on mooncakes, a popular pastry, being a prime example.
Here are some of the strangest parts of Xi’s anti-corruption campaign.
1) The Mooncake Ban
As mentioned above, mooncakes are just the latest casualty in an anti-graft campaign that Xi Jinping pledged would take on "tigers and flies" — meaning, wrongdoing by leading officials and smaller, more commonplace shows of corruption. Beijing banned officials from using public funds to buy the delicacy, which are popular during the Mid-Autumn Festival. With consumers spending 15 billion yuan on mooncakes in 2011, some analysts are projecting the ban might hurt holiday sales. Still, the case of mooncakes feels like a "fly" rather than a "tiger."
2) Orders to Carpool
In recent years, microblogging sites have spurred massive public outrage over perceptions of political corruption. One such microblog site, "Anti-Official Cars Extravagance," captured the anger of the Chinese public over the sleek, expensive black cars that have become identified with Communist party officials. The Wall Street Journal reported in February on a "soft ban" on government purchases of foreign-made luxury cars. To instantly crack down on the perception that the cars inspire, the military and other government agencies have ordered delegates to carpool when arriving in Beijing — a couple notches down from the red carpets and banquets that used to herald their arrivals. One top military official reportedly told the People’s Liberation Army Newsletter, "Car-pooling feels so good because it provides a way to bond and chat with each other while saving money and increasing efficiency."
3) Military License Plates
The Communist Party and the Chinese military have enjoyed a historic relationship ripe for abuses of power, and military license plates have often served as the currency of that special relationship. Officials are known for handing them out as perks or bribes, allowing recipients to openly flout traffic laws and avoid toll fees. In tandem with the restrictions on car purchases, a new policy that took effect on May 1 placed the license plates under stricter control and outright banned them on luxury vehicles — speaking, perhaps, to the anti-corruption campaign’s particular responsiveness to the most conspicuous shows of graft.
4) 5-Course Meals (4 Courses Are Still OK)
Immediately after entering office, Xi instituted a frugality measure that forbade more than four courses (plus a soup) at banquet meals for Party officials, a significant downgrade from the usual 10-course affairs. Luxury items were ordered off the menu, too, leading to delegate complaints about no longer having meat at breakfast or seafood at banquet meals. Such belt-tightening, in addition to endeavoring to diminish public perceptions of Communist Party corruption and extravagance, has had a significant impact on luxury seafood suppliers in China and Hong Kong. Sales of shark fin, for example, which are a key ingredient in a pricey soup once common at banquets, are down 70 percent, according to Ministry of Commerce data. Abalone and bird’s nest, other former staples of extravagant banquets, are facing similar downward pressure.
5) Moutai (liquor)
Moutai, a luxury brand of clear, sorghum-based alcohol, has been known for years as a staple of lavish government banquets in China, so much so that Wen Jiabao proposed slashing the budget for it even before anti-corruption reforms moved to the fore of the presidential agenda. Ubiquitous in high-flying circles, the liquor brand became known as the only Chinese brand favored by the country’s millionaires. An order issued by the Central Military Commission before Christmas in 2012, however, ordered avoidance of representative expenses like lavish banquets and specifically mentioned Moutai. That order’s results were seriously felt when the stock price of the alcohol tumbled at the end of last year.
Much of the criticism leveled at Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption crusade has called it unserious or cosmetic. It’s hard not to agree: When you compare efforts to legislate mooncake gifts with the relative disregard given to, say, reforming the court system or introducing comprehensive proposals to monitor gifts or assets, it seems there are a lot of half-hearted efforts and little real impact.