An estimated 50 million tons of Chinese grain go to waste each year – enough to feed 200 million people. The majority of this waste comes from one source: official banquets paid for with public funds.
That may explain why the central government is hell-bent on slashing the number of local government liaison offices in Beijing.
Still Wasting Food?
The central government has been encouraging business leaders and officials to shy away from five-star banquets since the start of the year. But crafty officials have already found a loophole: liaison restaurants.
A recently leaked banquet menu showed that the restaurant affiliated with the Sichuan Province liaison office in Beijing charges as much as 18,000 yuan per table.
The banquet prices at most restaurants affiliated with liaison offices hover around 5,000 yuan per table, not including alcohol and cigarettes. At the restaurant affiliated with the Fujian Provincial liaison office, the least expensive group banquet is 2,000 yuan.
Maotai is still the best-selling spirit at official banquets. Most bottles cost 3,380 yuan, but Maotai aged for 15 years costs no less than 18,000 yuan, according to the restaurant for Hainan Province.
The Jiu San Society estimates that officials across the nation spend more than 300 billion yuan in public funds on their banquets each year.
These expensive banquets waste enormous amounts of food, as officials are loath to take anything home in a doggy bag.
More than half the dishes end up in the garbage.
China Agricultural University estimated that more than 8 million tons of proteins go to waste each year – enough to meet the nutritional needs of more than 200 million people each year.
Official banquets paid for by the public account for 93 percent of that waste.
The central government has finally taken notice.
In late 2010, the liaison offices of government departments and development zones were ordered to close within six months.
The Government Offices Administration of the State Council was assigned to perform spot checks on the local authorities, resulting in the closure of 625 offices in November 2010.
However, many evaded the watchdogs by re-branding themselves as restaurants or hotels.
An employee surnamed Zhou at a Beijing office of Jiangsu Province was quoted by Xinhua as saying that liaison offices exist to serve local officials and establish an information bridge between the central and the local governments.
“We have 13 offices in the city after last year’s closures,” he said, adding that most of the ones that closed were involved in trade and investment.
Liaison offices for local government and state-owned enterprises have two functions: to attract foreign investment and contracts and arrange lavish receptions for local officials.
“The reason many provinces set up liaison offices in Beijing at the end of the 1980s was because of the financial system,” said Li Chengyan, professor of Department of Political Science and Public Administration at Peking University.
The first liaison office was set up in 1949 by the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. Between 1958 and 1959, 28 more opened in the capital.
These were swept away during the Cultural Revolution, but came back with a vengeance in the late 1980s.
Li said the tax-sharing system implemented at that time gave the central government a lot of power to manage and examine transfers of money to the provinces. The liaison offices served as a permanent location from which local officials could lobby the central government.
It didn’t take long before they became entangled in horrible corruption.
Today, many are “organizations” that use public funds to provide services to visiting officials.
Official Table Culture
British music broker Simon Nauber once said sharing booze is the fastest path to friendship in China. “Wine and table socialization” are just how people communicate.
That’s why the business of the day at Chinese banquets is expanding one’s contacts for future business: food is generally an afterthought.
Columnist Zhou Xiaoqun said anyone who wants to do business in China has to learn the untold rules of table culture – particularly when they need to deal with officials. The way to leave your leaders with a good impression is to get exceptionally drunk, and then still help the leaders drink if their alcohol tolerance is on the low side.
Strong drinks are also closely associated with identity. Alcohol ranked “Very Superior Old Pale” is for section directors, “Extra” is for commissioners and “XO” is for mayors.
Wang Xudong, a commentator for the China Youth Daily, said having a banquet to enjoy the food isn’t a bad thing – the trouble is when it gets mixed up with official culture, where bottles of liquor are often bribes.
Wang said the fastest way to stem corruption would be to remove alcohol and cigarettes from the table at official banquets.
While strong liquor also has a place in Japanese and Korean banquets, they are rarely used as tools. Staff and managers contribute their own money to pay for banquets.
South Koreans used to run up extraordinarily high liquor tabs. In the last decade, most have switched to lunch banquets, where the cost of alcohol will be significantly reduced.