Over the last year, high-end restaurants in China have been struck as if by lightning by President Xi Jinping’s ‘anti-corruption campaign’ and ban on dining out at government expense. ‘People in China are used to such political campaigns,’ one friend of mine told me, ‘But normally they drop off after a while. No one expected the ban on expense-account feasting to last this long.’
Officials in China are paranoid about being caught breaking the rules: these days, all it takes to ruin a reputation, and perhaps a career, is a meddlesome citizen with a smartphone camera, hovering outside the restaurant as you sneak out after eating your shark’s fin soup.
One expat friend of mine in Beijing said he’d been having a perfectly innocent dinner with some high-ranking officials to celebrate a charitable venture, and they had to stay inside the restaurant for half an hour after the meal while some lackeys scoured the streets for curious bystanders – only when they were satisfied that the coast was clear were the VIPs willing to make a dash from the expensive restaurant to their official cars. He also said one company he knew had opened its own club – in effect, a bar and restaurant with a chef and kitchen staff, in an upper floor of a normal-looking office building, so they could wine and dine officials without anyone noticing. Another friend who works in a smart hotel says there is a special lift from the carpark to the private dining rooms, so that VIP guests do not have to pass through the lobby on their way to dinner.
In such a climate, it’s not surprising that fancy restaurants are feeling the pinch. But even so, a chef friend of mine was incredulous to hear that the Chinese Commerce Minister had denied that extravagant dining had ever been part of Chinese culture! Extravagant dining was practically invented in China. This is a country, after all, in which ancient sages could explain their philosophy in terms of the impossibility of having both fish and bear’s paw. And look at this invocation, written two and a half thousand years ago, which aimed to lure back the souls of the dead through its mouthwatering descriptions of exotic delicacies:
Stewed turtle and roast kid, served up with yam sauce;
Geese cooked in sour sauce, casseroled duck, fried flesh of the great crane;
Braised chicken, seethed tortoise, high-seasoned, but not to spoil the taste;
Fried honey-cakes of rice flour and malt-sugar sweetmeats…
(Qu Yuan, in The Songs of the South – Penguin Classics)
Anyway, the Commerce Minister was clearly wiping such seditious ideas from his mind when he answered questions from reporters earlier this month. The following is my translation of a report from the Legal Evening News, sent to me by the incredulous chef (Chinese version below):
2014-03-07 Legal Evening News
At nine o’clock this morning, Commerce Minister Gao Hucheng answered questions from Chinese and foreign reporters about ‘Commercial Development and Opening Up to the Outside World’. At the end of the news conference, Minister Gao Hucheng turned around just before leaving, and answered this newspaper’s question about the fall in high-end food and drink consumption. He said that the fall in high-end food and drink consumption was a good thing, and said that high-end food and drink consumption had never been part of Chinese culture!
You can see from the exclamation mark at the end of the report that the journalist found Mr Gao’s comment as staggering and ridiculous as my friend. And this blatant official denial of history makes one understand why some people say the current anti-corruption campaign has some disturbing resonances with the Cultural Revolution.