Lavish treats out of favour

Beijing's crackdown on corruption has taken a toll on the demand for high-end mooncakes ahead of this week's Mid-Autumn Festival

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 September, 2013, 11:35am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 September, 2013, 3:03am

Gold-encrusted mooncakes stuffed with shark's fin are out of favour ahead of this week's Mid-Autumn Festival on the mainland after a crackdown on corruption killed off demand for such lavish pastries - long used as a way to bribe officials.

With more calories than a Big Mac, mooncakes are given as gifts to family, friends and employees during the festival, which falls on Thursday.

In recent years, lavish varieties have popped up with jewellery-box-style packaging, allowing cash, liquor or other goodies to be hidden in with the pastries.

But an anti-corruption drive by President Xi Jinping had left the pricier treats languishing on the shelves, shopkeepers and analysts said, even as sales of more traditional lotus-seed and sesame-paste-stuffed varieties were unhurt.

"What has taken a deep dive is the high-end mooncakes more typically associated with corruption," said Shaun Rein, the managing director of China Market Research.

The gilded age of mooncakes was last year, when pastries stuffed with gold flakes, shark's fin and abalone made headlines. In rural Shanxi province, gold-filled variations sold for more than US$1,000, newspapers reported.

Medium-sized China Merchants Bank marketed mooncakes made of solid gold and silver, state media said.

A spokesman at the bank's headquarters in Shenzhen could not be reached for comment but a manager at a branch in Beijing said she was not aware of any gold or silver cakes being sold this year.

"It's normal to exchange gifts but too much reciprocity has become a form of extravagance," the People's Daily, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party, wrote in a commentary last month about the holiday.

Excesses in past years had even prompted the government to ask officials and workers to pay income tax on mooncakes they received.

"[This year] some government officials are less willing to accept a lavish or high-priced box of mooncakes, or in some cases, any mooncakes at all," said Eric Carlson, a Beijing-based partner at law firm Covington & Burling and an anti-corruption expert.

Carlson said he had heard that some government agencies had told mailroom staff to filter out mooncake packages before delivery.

The Communist Party's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection on Friday urged people to report cases of party members and government or state-owned enterprise officials spending public funds on gifts, banquets, travel and luxury goods during the Mid-Autumn Festival and the National Day holiday, which falls in early October.

When Xi says something like this, the people he hurts are the ordinary folk
Coupon trader

While the mainland regularly announces anti-corruption campaigns, this one appears to have more bite than usual, although experts say only deep and difficult political reforms will make a real difference.

"Political developments this year have had a definite impact on sales of high-end mooncakes," said Qian Qiliang, who has run a state-owned mooncake factory in Shanghai for two decades, adding that sales had fallen 20 per cent.

Qian said he adjusted his production goals when he heard about the crackdown, predicting demand for pricier pastries would decline.

Demand for lower-cost cakes with traditional fillings had increased 20 per cent, he said.

The crackdown on luxury mooncakes has also hurt a black market for mooncake coupons.

For convenience, workplaces often give employees coupons for expensive mooncakes in lieu of the cakes themselves.

Those who dislike mooncakes sometimes sell the coupons to traders who hang out outside hotels and shopping centres.

Those who do like mooncakes buy coupons at a discount from traders.

Manufacturers sometimes also buy back coupons from traders in large batches.

"Most mooncakes are awful," Rein said. "People are scared of eating them because everyone knows how bad they are, and they could be years old if people keep regifting them."

A Shanghai-based coupon trader said the windfall he counted on had declined from as much as 2,000 yuan (HK$2,5300 a day to just a few hundred yuan.

"There's nothing I can do," said the trader, who spends the rest of the year hawking cigarettes. "When Xi says something like this, the people he hurts are the ordinary folk."