Mooncakes are the fruitcake of China, a dutifully received yet largely unloved holiday comestible. The pastries circulate around the Mid-Autumn Festival, a lunar celebration that this year begins on Sept. 19. But since China’s leader Xi Jinping unveiled a campaign to combat official graft and lavish living, conspicuous consumption has become a lot less conspicuous. Even the popularity of the poor mooncake — with its red-bean or lotus-seed filling or the more extravagant abalone, bird’s nest or gold-leaf varieties — has been affected.
On Aug. 22, the Chinese Communist Party’s central discipline committee prohibited the use of public funds to purchase mooncakes — and associated gifts — during this year’s Mid-Autumn Festival. Vice Premier Wang Qishan, head of the discipline body, weighed in on the subject of the weighty, calorie-rich treats: “Decadent styles have polluted our festival culture in recent years with the sending of increasingly extravagant gifts.” Hu Bin, a sales manager for Gongyifu, a venerable mooncake maker in Beijing, tells TIME that the “sales of high-end mooncakes are severely affected … [because] the government is not allowed to [give] mooncakes as gifts.”
Sometimes in today’s China, a mooncake is not just a mooncake. Elaborately designed boxes can contain not only the requisite four baked treats but also cash, jewels and other costly garnishes. Other mooncakes exist in paper form only, as vouchers that are traded for financial value in a kind of sweetmeat futures scheme. As might be expected, the trade in mooncake coupons is also suffering under Xi’s austerity program, say scalpers.
Still, despite the war on mooncakes, some Chinese spent the week stocking up — just not on the more expensive varieties that can cost up to $1,000 a box. Although a survey by the Southern Metropolis Daily showed that 40% of respondents were not planning to buy mooncakes this year, more than 90% said if they did purchase them, they would buy those that cost less than 200 yuan, or around $30, per box. Sales manager Hu confirms that “cheap mooncakes are still popular in Beijing.” But the problem of the mooncake’s often uninspiring taste? That’s something even President Xi may not be able to solve.
— With reporting by Gu Yongqiang / Beijing