China media calls for an end to mooncake 'bribery'

Media calls for end to expensive 'gifts' for officials as high-priced festival treats go underground to avoid the party's radar

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 September, 2013, 1:52am

The Mid-Autumn Festival might be part of China's "intangible cultural heritage", but it is the more tangible aspects - bribes in the form of vastly expensive mooncakes - that have corruption watchdogs howling.

Ill-gotten wealth is most likely to change hands during auspicious festivals, not just for good luck, but because these events provide an opportunity to easily disguise the costs as business expenses. For this reason, it is not just the gifts that are precious, but also the receipts that lend credibility to corrupt dealings while offering fringe benefits.

It is a time when mooncakes have as much value as gifts as they do to eat. Mooncakes are an expensive treat and those grabbing the attention of the wealthy - and, increasingly, the authorities - are the "sky-high-priced" versions that come decorated with gold, silver, crystals, or stuffed with shark's fin and abalone.

Last week, the Communist Party's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection published remarks President Xi Jinping made in his visit to Liaoning province, calling for an end to the use of public funds for such gifts, travel and other "unhealthy tendencies".

During a visit to Tianjin last Friday, commission head Wang Qishan said habits such as squandering money on mooncakes and hairy crabs during the Mid-Autumn Festival had tainted the image of Chinese traditional festivals.

The remarks were reprinted by the mainland media to "blow the wind of clean politics". Only weeks earlier, a handful of news outlets exposed examples of ultra-expensive mooncakes. Other media followed suit, running editorials calling them "props of corruption", as the average person could never afford them. By their reasoning, high-end mooncakes were bought by companies as "gifts" - bribes - for officials. And the higher the price, the larger the bribe.

Mainland media also pointed out that the elite mooncakes had gone semi-underground this year. High-class hotels or other institutions, including banks, put in special orders for discreet production.

Many high-class hotels in Zhengzhou , Henan province, for example, sell mooncakes packaged with champagne and rare matsutake mushrooms for 1,999 yuan (HK$2,500) and 2,999 yuan. The more expensive package was especially popular, Beijing Evening News reported, noting that the packaging and accessories that came with the mooncakes were luxury items in their own right that could be used for other purposes, such as more gifts to officials.

Receipts for such items also entitle whoever holds them to further gifts, dining, lodging or conferences that can be filed as expenses for reimbursement.

"How can we put an end of these 'deformed' mooncakes after they've been packaged?" Beijing Evening News asked. "The key may not be in controlling production of the mooncakes, but rather putting an end to extra benefits people obtain through their purchase."

Southern Metropolis Daily said sending gifts during the festival or on National Day was essentially an abuse of power and that, because using public funds to pay for the gifts harmed the public interest, a crackdown was needed.

The Changjiang Daily asked readers to re-examine the meaning of the Mid-Autumn Festival, a traditional family festival that had nothing to do with money. It called on government departments to stop wasting public funds, and restore mooncakes to their original intention.

Beijing Youth Daily suggested officials make better use of the paper trail to find out who was behind the illicit mooncake purchases: "Who wrote false receipts for 'sky-high-priced' mooncakes? Which units used what names to reimburse the payment? These are facts contained in documents that can be investigated. Then we can stop it," it said.

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