A toast to Xi Jinping’s crackdown on China’s ingrained drinking culture
Kenny Hodgart says clear heads are needed for officials to make decisions that benefit the country
Donald Trump apparently once jeopardised a business deal with a group of Hong Kong billionaires by declining to indulge in a drinking contest with them.
According to the unwritten ordinances of contemporary punditry, this preamble should lead – like all Trump-related preambles – into some veiled, or unveiled, disparagement of his lack of deportment, his racism and, most crucially, his hair.
Not today, though. Even a stopped clock tells the right time every 12 hours and I’m with Trump on his teetotalism. The man is mad, bad and dangerous enough without getting on the El Dorado. But look: as arguments for abstinence go, the prodigious drinking that attends a large part of both state and commercial activity in these latitudes is hard to beat.
Therein also lies the reason why President Xi Jinping (習近平) ought to be given some credit for his campaign against the mainland’s drinking classes. Last month brought a win in his efforts to curb what might properly be described as Russian levels of boozing in public life as cadres in Anhui (安徽) province were told that, with the exception of events involving foreign affairs, or held to attract investment, there would be no more drinking at official dinners – otherwise known as “the office”.
The ban, designed to combat an ingrained culture of “working at the drinking table” according to Xinhua, came in the wake of an investigation into several deaths in the province among functionaries who had been too assiduous in their gan bei toasts and succumbed to alcohol poisoning. It also followed Xi’s move, shortly after assuming office in 2012, to place restrictions on alcohol at military functions. The practice of lower-ranking officers in the People’s Liberation Army endlessly toasting their superiors was held to be causing widespread liver disease and elevated blood pressure, not to mention chronic badger breath, among the officer class.
It’s my suspicion that listening to Party orders of business in Anhui province is not something that can easily be endured sober. It would be wrong to make light of this matter, though. Where politics and drink intersect it is customary to refer to Winston Churchill, and if there is one point on which the “Greatest Briton” is clear, it is that no one but he could achieve what he managed on the drinking regimen to which he was devoted. “I have been brought up and trained to have the utmost contempt for people who get drunk,” said the man who liked to drink almost as much as he liked being at war.
The reality is that many who drink to excess in public life are tragic, second-rate characters, and it seems to me the archetype here is Boris Yeltsin, a Falstaffian figure who revelled in representing a tradition of alcoholism bridging Russia’s new era of capitalist autocracy with its Communist and Tsarist ones. As Bill Clinton tells it, Yeltsin once got so drunk on a visit to Washington that he was found roaming Pennsylvania Avenue, outside the White House, dressed only in his underpants and trying to hail a taxi. He wanted to get pizza, see. As an adjunct to that, he was completely incompetent, sold off the state’s prize assets to gangsters and started two wars in Chechnya.
In the mainland, where in certain contexts it’s considered bad form to refuse a drink, there’s something of that buffoonish macho spirit of recklessness in the brinkmanship of the baijiu dinner. As one civil servant in the Anhui city of Ma’anshan told China Daily: “Many Chinese believe they can judge a person’s quality through observing the attitude and style of one’s drinking.”
It may be that Xi’s main concern is to see that his country’s officials do not dilute what the writer Yuan Weishi called their “wolf’s milk” – Yuan’s phrase to describe nationalistic indoctrination – with headier brews. Yet while the president’s crackdown on corruption means a little transparency here and there without significantly changing how things work, clearer heads in government as a result of reforming the country’s drinking culture might actually result in actions that make life better for people.
Kenny Hodgart is a former staff journalist at the Post who has lived in Hong Kong since 2011