China’s Anti-Corruption Toolkit: No Flowers, Expensive Booze or ‘Empty Talk’

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Ed Jones / AFP / Getty Images

Chinese security guards inside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Nov. 9, 2012

Woe to premium rice-wine distillers, potted-plant purveyors and weavers of red carpets. A slew of new regulations issued in recent days to curb corruption and limit showy displays by Chinese officialdom have claimed some unusual victims. “We’ve received no orders from the government at all,” laments an employee surnamed Ye of the Laitai Flower Market in Beijing. “Usually at times like this, we would always have government orders.” The weeks before Chinese New Year (also known as Spring Festival) are normally peak season for selling flowers because of a glut of official meetings that are decorated with extravagant floral arrangements.

China’s new leadership, which was introduced to the world in mid-November and is helmed by Communist Party chief Xi Jinping, has made combating the country’s endemic corruption one of its publicly stated missions. In late December, Xinhua, China’s state news agency enumerated a list of eight don’ts to fit these more austere times. Floral displays and welcome mats for official delegations are now prohibited, according to regulations from the Political Bureau of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee. So are clusters of waving schoolchildren dispatched to greet visiting dignitaries. State employees traveling overseas should keep an eye on the size of their entourages. Closing roads or otherwise disrupting traffic to smooth a government official’s journey will no longer be tolerated. The iconic red banners that hang during Chinese government functions — which “warmly welcome” visitors or point out the glories of Chinese socialism — have also been banned by China’s communist czars.

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One of the more unusual prohibitions: officials are not allowed to ink public calligraphy (called tizi or 题字) without prior approval. Although these inscriptions might seem like innocuous displays of an ancient art, a local cadre can wield power through possessing a high-level official’s tizi, much like a restaurant might profit from displaying a photo of a celebrity enjoying a meal.

Not to be outdone by the Communist Party, the Central Military Commission, which supervises the People’s Liberation Army, issued 10 regulations of its own, including the banning of alcohol from its receptions. On Dec. 24, the share price of some premium Chinese liquor brands listed on Chinese stock exchanges declined, with Kweichow Moutai, one of the most well-known luxury alcohol makers, losing $2 billion, or 5.5% of its value, on the Shanghai bourse. Kweichow Moutai is a state-owned distillery based in remote Guizhou province; its white-and-red bottles, which can cost hundreds of dollars, are like the fruitcakes of Chinese officialdom — passed around at banquets and used as influence-buying gifts but rather less often quaffed, perhaps because of the corrosive burn of the grain spirit inside. (Another premium mao-tai firm’s stock price was hit last month by domestic media reports alleging that its alcohol was tainted by toxic contaminants.)

In addition to the alcohol ban, the Central Military Commission has nixed “luxury” banquets for members of the armed forces. (Just what constitutes a “luxury” banquet, as opposed to a run-of-the-mill one, was not specified.) Officials visiting Beijing for work, meanwhile, will have to make do with buffet meals, as opposed to multicourse banquets, according to new municipal regulations. The eastern province of Jiangsu issued similar dietary restrictions. Earlier this month, state media noted that China’s new leader Xi carried his own plate while eating at a cafeteria in the southern boomtown of Shenzhen. “Some viewed his actions as an attempt to encourage officials to forgo bureaucracy and a sense of entitlement,” noted Xinhua. Will we see a future reduction in the girth of Chinese cadres or biceps made brawnier by officials hefting their own cafeteria trays?

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The government’s effort to combat official excess was preceded by months of Chinese Internet vigilantism. Using social media to attack government workers they suspected of living beyond their means, Chinese muckrakers circulated photos of officials wearing luxury clothes or accessories. Tales of cadre-organized orgies and multiple-mistressed officials proliferated online. Some officials have been axed from their jobs following the Internet exposés — a rare example of grassroots activism succeeding in China.

But will the state’s anticorruption campaign actually change the slippery way in which officialdom operates in China? When Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao came into office, he kicked off a similar antigraft drive. Yet official malfeasance and impunity only increased during Hu’s decade in power. Xi’s supporters say his administration realizes how dire the situation is today, even compared with 10 years ago. China’s wealth gap is yawning ever wider, and the Internet has made it harder for officials to hide their ostentatious habits.

Xi’s manifesto against state extravagance (and any attendant corruption) has certainly prompted some curious edicts. Among the Central Military Commission’s 10 regulations was one discouraging speeches that are “empty talk.” The Communist Party’s Beijing Municipal Committee has deemed that “news publishers are also required to shorten the lengths of stories on officials’ activities, which have often bored people due to the stories’ wordy, meaningless style.” That’s according to Xinhua — itself a model manufacturer of such journalism. Separately, another Chinese media outlet noted that with official functions stripped of all their expensive pomp and circumstance, efficiency has been heightened. A meeting that would normally take more than an hour needed only 20 minutes. What will China do with this precious gift of time?

— With reporting by Chengcheng Jiang / Beijing

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