New year banquet givers caught out by the new frugality

Developers and their tenants caught out by official belt-tightening ahead of Lunar New Year

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 February, 2013, 4:27am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 February, 2013, 5:07am

A year ago, mainland developers were busy wining and dining  government officials at five-star hotels before the Lunar New Year.

"We thought it would be business as usual this year,  and we reserved a sumptuous banquet," one developer said. "The menu included,  palm size abalone, Boston lobster sashimi and goose liver flown from Paris. But most officials rejected coming as Beijing called for simple meals and stepped up efforts to fight corruption." 

So he enjoyed this 100,000 yuan dinner with his family, as it was too late for a cancellation.

New Communist Party chief Xi Jinping has repeatedly indicated that the government will take harsh measures against lavish gift giving and corruption.

When Xi visited Shenzhen in December, he ordered a serving of simple and unadorned food, with no more than six dishes and one soup, and a buffet meal for accompanying officials.

With the new leaders discouraging the giving of expensive gifts, one property firm, which also owns and operates a shopping mall in the mainland, said sales of luxury watches in Beijing dropped significantly before Lunar New Year - a traditional peak season for the retail industry.

Designer-label watches with diamonds are a popular corporate gift, as more than 80 per cent of top government officials are male.

An international retailer of  luxury watches and jewellery has delayed expansion plans temporarily, as corporate gifts accounted for half its sales and it  needed to observe how Xi's ironfisted fight against corruption would affect the top-end retail market.

Although top government officials have shied away from banquets and giving expensive gifts, developers still need to entertain retired civil servants who set up companies offering all sorts of property-related consulting services.

Through their established guanxi with serving government officials, they help property firms clear obstacles when they seek license approvals for fire safety, construction permits and building plans. This group of "middle men", as the developer calls them, receive prepaid gift cards that carry a value of between HK$50,000 and HK$100,000. They can be used  in food and beverage outlets, department stores, supermarkets and even hair salons nationwide.

The boss of the property firm was told by retail tenants that the sharp fall in corporate gift buying was offset by a rise in shoppers from rural areas who've made a handsome profit from selling land or properties. 

But their appetites are more modest. "Instead of spending a million dollars for a watch or a piece of jade, this group of new customers  can afford to pay HK$4,000 for a pair of jeans," he said.