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A toast to Xi’s crackdown on boozing

This article can also be read at SCMP.COM

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 even unveiled, disparagement of his lack of deportment, his racism, and most crucially his hair.

Not today, though. No sir. Even a stopped clock tells the right time every 12 hours and I’m with Trump on his tee-totalism. 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 ought to be given some credit for his campaign against the mainland’s drinking classes. Last month (June) 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 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 at large.

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 about drinking on which Britain’s “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, he (Yeltsin) once got so bladdered on a visit to Washington that he was found roaming Pennsylvania Avenue, outside the White House, dressed only in his underpants and attempting 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 alcoholic brinksmanship of the baijou dinner. As one civil servant in the Anhui city of Ma’anshan told the 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 Jinping’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.

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Undone by fake Lafite

You can read this post at SCMP.COM –

Becoming inured to conspicuous wealth is a quirk of life in Hong Kong. Stirred into distraction near my office in Central by a revving Lamborghini or Porsche, I might well remark to myself “there goes an expensive sports car”. Having heard tell of a VIAGRA and a SATAN, I might even scan its personalised plates for some momentary amusement. But, pace their owners’ intentions, after a while these thoroughbreds of our gridlocked precincts come to seem, well, commonplace.

A Sheung Wan sidewalk stacked with cases of fine Bordeaux, long the turbo-consumer’s tipple of choice in these parts, might therefore be calculated to induce a similarly world-weary reaction. Something less passive reared in me, however, as, on a mid-day saunter, I was forced to circumnavigate easily HK$2million worth of Lafites and Latours, resting on the journey from loading van to some out-of-sight restaurant holding cell. Mingled with my excitement – at the thought of liberating a case and working a crowbar on it for a lunchtime straightener since you ask, yes – was the nagging reminder that I have some Lafite-Rothschild 1996 doing absolutely nothing for me in a cellar in London.

I don’t make up the rules; I’m just gullible enough to have invested, modestly, in fine wine when I was told it would outperform everything else in sight. If European aristocrats, the uber-charlatans who rate wine growths and multitudes of newly-minted Asians conspire to create a big fat money market in the stuff, then carpe diem, no?

Well, that was a while back now. Of late, prices at auction, for Château Lafite in particular, have sunk to at least a ten-year low on the back of President Xi Jinping turning the screw on corruption, guanxi and extravagance – his trapping of tigers and quashing of flies. Now even the tigers daren’t drink Lafite, even if it’s mixed with Coca-Cola (terribly infra dig – who’s to say the whole campaign wasn’t motivated by embarrassment, besides Xi’s thirst for power?). Or at least that’s what’s reported; I do wonder what they’re drinking at Zhongnanhai these days. And the wolves – are they to be spared?

In truth, the bottom had been falling out of the whole business for some time, owing to another facet of capitalism with Chinese characteristics: fakery. In its upward march, the country has excelled itself in many spheres, but in the standard of its fakes it is in a league of its own. Sure, the Ferraris and Lamborghinis have been easy enough to detect, but the best of the wine fakers have been so successful that they’ve fooled serious investors, auctioneers, even oenologists. It’s set some people back, myself included, but what can you do? In the purity of the deception and in the denuding of European exceptionalism, it almost merits awe.

Nobody really complains about the mass-produced but largely convincing knock-offs of Western oil paintings you can buy from Shenzhen’s Dafen Village. But then faking it, or at least repetition, is by and large the name of the game in the art racket anyway. Fear of cliché begets cliché in a world in which artists and critics collude to take themselves in – convincing themselves that they are, respectively, purveyors and arbiters of originality. It’s all so much intellectual evasion, but so long as the price tag convinces the purchaser he’s buying Art, it ticks along. And so it goes with the Lamborghini and the Bordeaux – their prestige depends on faith in the power of money itself.

By the way, marked up in a restaurant a bottle of that Lafite will still cost you HK$9,500, easy.

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Xi’s bun show

This article was published in the South China Morning Post’s Post Magazine

From the diary of President Xi Jinping, as leaked to Post Magazine by shadowy forces:

“Dear diary, just can’t decide what to do with the spin doctors – they’ve made a sow’s ear of this pork bun shop business. I mean, yeah, it sounded like a great idea: ‘Get out there and meet the plebs,’ they said. ‘Then we’ll plaster it over the internet – well, the bits of the internet you allow – and you’ll come up smiling. Man of the people and all that. Bingo!

“Only they didn’t tell me about the song. Whose moronic idea was that? ‘Big brother Xi … You warm the hearts of the common people in the cold winter’. Jeez, it makes me sound all cuddly. All I did was fix the old kisser in a grin and stuff dumplings and stew (horrible stuff – backed me up no end) down it. Thought the driver would never honk for us to leave – we had to have words about that later. Now they’re all talking about the cult of Xi. Who wants that? Not me.

“Or maybe I do. Can’t make up my mind. Liyuan’s always telling me I’m cuddly. I tell her there speaks the cancer of bourgeois liberalism, but then she starts singing The Laundry Song (The army and people are one family/ Helping us to wash our clothes) and I let it slide.

“Anyway, the propaganda team are under surveillance. Why can’t they be more like Hollande’s guys? Nobody wrote a stupid song about him after he nipped out to see that woman about a dog.

“Maybe I should get a dog. Not a big scary one, mind, but nothing too cuddly either.”