Excess of Petit Fours Forces Beijing to Ban Bacchanal Banquets

Feasts on the public tab go on, even if foreign journalists demur

HERE was the official menu at a banquet for journalists at the five-star Kunming Hotel:

Crab meat and fresh-fruit salad, sauteed squid and ham with pigeon slice, deep-fried cream with baked spare-ribs marinated with champagne sauce, braised seasonal vegetable with Yunnan ham, steamed black chicken with fennel and Chinese berries, braised shiitake mushroom with duck webs, marinated chicken with soy sauce, steamed fresh black fish, fried rice with minced beef, Cantonese petit fours, fresh-water chestnut cream, and fresh-fruit platter.

The Chinese government is on an anticorruption, austerity kick, trying to discipline and curb wayward party cadre from wining and dining on the public tab. But judging from the spread before us, this year's official ban on banqueting echoed hollowly.

The occasion was an interview with Kunming Mayor Wang Tingchen by a small group of foreign journalists traveling through Yunnan Province near China's southern border. Afterward, Mr. Wang excused himself, but insisted his guests stay to dine with other city officials.

Normally, such a feast would be a mouth-watering prospect, and the Chinese officials tucked in. But after almost a week of daily banquets, many at government invitation and expense, the journalists were satiated from a trip that had become a gastronomic ordeal. The foreigners ate little.

In China, polite protests generally go unheeded in the face of such relentless banqueting. A banquet, an age-old ritual in this hierarchical, protocol-conscious country, is supposed to be a happy occasion celebrating the conclusion of a business deal or honoring the presence of a guest.

Yet, as corruption has permeated the government and ranks of the Communist Party, the banquet has become a symbol of graft and decadent officials eying an expensive free lunch. Usually, the most expensive dishes are served. Often, lavish gifts are distributed too.

Anxious not to miss a banquet, the Yunnan officials refused to relent, even after the journalists pleaded for simpler meals and more than half the group fell sick and failed to appear. "We can't cancel," a translator explained. "They have already planned it, and it would be rude not to show."

In March, the government said enough. Worried about the survival of the tarnished, decaying Communist Party, the government's Ministry of Supervision and the Party's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection commanded that the lavish eating and entertaining at public expense must stop.

The authorities have also blamed the government-funded consumption for fueling high inflation, which could trigger social unrest. This month, Beijing sent out inspection teams to the provinces to enforce its order and punish violators.

The Chinese press has been full of reports of lower-level officials charged with corruption and oftentimes punished severely. One such unlucky official, Wang Bin in Hubei Province, was sentenced to death this year for embezzling $150,000 and spending it on banquets and entertainment.

The official New China News Agency reported that the squeeze on official expense accounts is having an impact. Night clubs where guests were often feted by government institutions and enterprises have fallen on hard times since 60 percent of their revenue used to come from government-funded consumption, the news agency said.

The reality, though, is continued banqueting in provincial capitals and towns across China. In Kunming, though, the new prohibition has had little impact, said the manager of a major hotel. "Banquets have been cut back from 16 to 18 courses to 12 to 14 courses. But that's about all," he said. "Creating a good impression is very important to Chinese."

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