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Chinese officials told to avoid WeChat's red packets as graft busters fear web-based bribes

Graft-busters issue a warning against hi-tech seasonal gift-giving in the lead-up to the Mid-Autumn Festival and the National Day holiday

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 September, 2014, 1:41pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 April, 2015, 11:12am

The central government crackdown on corruption seems to be taking a bite out of the luxury mooncake business, with some delivery companies and bakeries reporting a major drop in activity ahead of next week's Mid-Autumn Festival.

Staff at the Beijing Central Business District office of SF Express, one of the mainland's biggest logistics companies, said their mooncake deliveries were down by half compared with last year.

And at the Drum Tower outlet of Daoxiangcun, one of the oldest traditional pastry makers in the capital, staff said that this year they had cut back on production of their most expensive mooncake gift boxes, which sell for 269 yuan (HK$338).

The drop in deliveries coincides with a warning this week from Huang Shuxian , the deputy head of the Communist Party's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, who said graft-busters were training their sights on prepaid e-gift cards and virtual presents like WeChat's popular "red packets", among other forms of corruption.

The red packet promotion, developed by tech giant Tencent, allows WeChat users to give away virtual money - up to 8,000 yuan to a single contact - that can be cashed through the WeChat application.

According to Tencent, more than five million users have signed up for the service.

"We should carefully detect, discover and investigate gifts that are delivered through logistics companies or given through e-commerce in the form of WeChat red packets and prepaid gift cards," Huang said during a public online chat on the commission's website on Thursday.

He said a lack of enforcement at the local level presented a challenge to President Xi Jinping's broader clampdown on the "four winds" of formalism, bureaucracy, hedonism and extravagance.

But one industry insider questioned whether the authorities could effectively detect corrupt hi-tech gift-giving through applications such as WeChat.

"Technically, in order to inspect the cash sent via the WeChat app, its developer, Tencent, has to give out all the users' data. That would be a serious violation of privacy," a senior manager of a leading mainland IT business said.

Huang's warning echoed a pledge by commission secretary Wang Qishan , who has reportedly vowed to combat "mooncake corruption" and other traditions that can be used for illicit official gain.

According to Phoenix Weekly magazine, Wang said in a speech late last month that when he was the mayor of Beijing he discovered that mooncake packaging often concealed gifts such as mobile phones, cash and gold jewellery.

Local governments were quick to respond yesterday to the commission's renewed call to eradicate graft. The Hubei Provincial Commission for Discipline Inspection said it would target deliveries of gifts ordered through e-commerce sites and delivered via logistics companies.

In Inner Mongolia , the local government said officials would not be reimbursed for luxury upgrades to private and government cars.

Central government departments such as the Ministry of Science and Technology also said they would crack down on graft during the Mid-Autumn Festival and the October 1 National Day holiday.