China’s Mooncake Crackdown

Monday marks the Mid-Autumn Festival, one of China's biggest holidays, the traditional harvest festival marked by a full moon. It is also a time to exchange mooncakes, typically round pastries about 10 centimeters in diameter and 3 to 4 centimeters thick, usually filled with red bean paste or lotus seeds and often containing a salted duck egg yolk to symbolize the moon.

Although to millions they are a delicacy representative of China’s culture, for others they are regarded as inedible and are the Chinese equivalent of the English fruitcake. Both have a specific gravity well beyond any other pastry. Fruitcakes have been known to be passed back and forth between families for generations without being touched. If eaten at all, mooncakes are meant to be sliced into wedges and savored slowly. A single mooncake has as many as 1,000 calories. Many liken the mooncake to a hockey puck, both in size, density and edibility,

But since the Communist Party came to power in the middle of the last century, mooncake exchanges have served an extremely useful function. “Never re-gift your mooncakes without looking inside the box first,” said Bill Bishop, who blogs under the name Sinocism.

Exquisitely packaged mooncake boxes have grown ever more exquisitely packaged as China – and its officials -- have grown richer. Officials have received them eagerly, since many in the past did not contain mooncakes, except for some that were solid gold. Some didn’t contain mooncakes at all, but are filled with cash – or didn’t until Xi Jinping became China’s president and started his swingeing crackdown on corruption.

For top officials – at least until last year – mooncake entrepreneurs knew no bounds, creating jewel-encrusted mooncakes, mooncakes stuffed with shark’s fin or abalone and sending them to officials in jewelry-box packaging and hiding jewelry, gold coins, mobile phones, diamonds and top French wines among the pastries. In recent years lavish varieties have popped up with cash, liquor or other goodies hidden in with the pastries.

But with officials including Minister of Supervision Huang Shuxian warning that names will be named of officials who violate the central authorities regulations on exchanges of baiju, the fiery booze whose prices can run up astronomically, as well as high-end mooncakes, mooncakes, sales have dropped dramatically. According to the China Youth Daily, 11 officials have already been nailed for being too greedy.

Huang told the state-owned news agency Xinhua that during the Mid-autumn Festival and the National Day holiday, anti-graft bodies will actually monitor and supervise gift-giving and mooncake ceremonies, extravagant dinners with public funds and bonus funds among governments, public institutions and state-owned enterprises and stop the hanky-panky.

Accordingly, mooncake box sets have fallen by a third from last year, according to Gao Houji, general manager of a mooncake bakery in Kunming. But his bulk sales have increased by a third, he told China Daily.

The government’s ant-graft campaign is expected to last for at least five years, according to Huang, and includes the ubiquitous red packets of money handed out for good luck during the Lunar New Year. It has put deep fear into many public officials, who are afraid to embark on even legitimate projects because of the danger from the anti-graft people looking over their shoulders.

The effect has been dramatic. According to Beijing Green Agriculture Sci-Tech Development, a Beijing-based agricultural tracking system, as late as Aug. 20, bulk purchases of sugar hadn’t even begun despite the fact that it is the peak season for mooncake sales “due to domestic politics and the economy situation. High-priced mooncake and high-end gift box sales have decreased sharply.”

Sales are thought to have fallen by half, putting a serious dent in mooncake bakers’ profits. Similarly, the crackdown has hit the baiju industry equally hard, or even harder. Baiju’s biggest producer is Maotai. It is a fiery sorghum-based liquor that to western palates strongly resembles kerosene. It was Maotai that Chou En-lai and Richard Nixon drank that cemented relations between the United States and China when the US finally recognized the Communist state.

Whether drinkable or not – and there are baiju aficionados – enormously expensive bottles of the stuff passed to officials became what one report called a medium of currency. That is no longer true. For Chinese officialdom, an evening with a mooncake and a bottle of baiju during the harvest festival has become a pretty modest affair with which to admire the full moon.