Chinese officials in Guangdong were called out in state media today for illegally consuming a giant endangered salamander in a lavish banquet costing more than $1,000 in government funds. The banquet of 28 people, many of them high-ranking police, took place Jan. 21 in a suburb of Shenzhen and was witnessed by local journalists who were severely beaten when they tried to photograph the event.
Some 14 police have been suspended pending investigation, according to state media Xinhua.
The event, which officials apparently tried to hide, contravenes a two-year austerity campaign by Chinese leader Xi Jinping. He has pledged to limit and curb the notorious Party member spending on food, luxury items, mistresses, and expensive drinking parties, things that ordinary Chinese chafe at and see as a violation of trust.
That the embarrassing salamander banquet and fracas would be printed by Xinhua and republished by another prominent party mouthpiece, the arch-nationalist Global Times – is evidence that President Xi’s anti-corruption efforts continue to penetrate society in a significant way, analysts say. Reforms in China often go through cycles of crackdowns followed by lax oversight. The open coverage of the Guangdong banquet, however, highlights that Xi isn't letting up when it comes to fighting an anti-corruption campaign that targets both "tigers and flies," major figures and lesser ones.
The original fracas came after journalists from Southern Metropolis Daily in Guanzhou were tipped off about the banquet and its main dish. The feast took place in a private room and journalists heard one host say about the salamander, which reportedly came from the province of Guizhou, “it is my territory, it is my treat … we are safe here.”
The Global Times named the head of public security in a district of Guandong Province as one of those suspended after the recent incident.
Since taking office, Xi has made a point of curbing official excess. He has been photographed eating humble Chinese dumplings, staying in modest hotels, and has excoriated those in the party willing to spend public money for luxuries like high-priced shark-fin soup dinners that, especially with the rise of Chinese wealth, are often part of the practice of influence peddling.
In the giant salamander instance, the official and media approbation is also seen as holding up at least a cosmetic effort by China to curb the practice of killing and consuming rare species and animals. Some 420 species were recently listed by Beijing as protected, and the harm of these animals carries a potential prison sentence. The giant salamander is one of them.
The salamander, described as critically endangered, is also on the “red list” of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. The beast used to flourish in southern China and grew to nearly six feet, and has a large body and small eyes. Few specimens of that size are now seen in the wild, since the reptile, as viewed in popular Chinese medicine, is reputed to extend youth.
Photos of giant salamander online that have been rescued prior to sale show most of them as slightly larger than a mature salmon.
Southern China in particular is known for unusual such dishes. The informal wet markets of Shenzhen and Guangzhou are rife with all manner of strange creatures, furry and slithery, reptilian and insect – sold as delicacies, not pets.