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'Banquet ban' gives locals food for thought

By Yang Jun and Hou Liqiang and Dong Xianwu ( China Daily )

Updated: 2017-02-17

A city in Southwest China has banned locals from hosting elaborate banquets as a way of reducing food waste and preventing unnecessary expenditure. Yang Jun reports from Anshun, Guizhou province, with Hou Liqiang in Beijing.

There are many government departments in China, both local and central, but few have a brief as unusual as the department that regulates the number of banquets local residents are allowed to host in Anshun, a city in Guizhou province, Southwest China.

The office may sound like a joke, but the problem it was set up to address is anything but amusing. The exorbitant number of banquets being held resulted in lost work hours and a huge waste of food. Moreover, people were gradually sliding into poverty because of the large amounts of money they were expected to hand over to the hosts as cash gifts, a must when attending a banquet in the city.

A "banquet ban" team was established in February last year in Puding county, which has a population of more than 470,000 and is one of six counties or county-level districts in the city, which is home to about 2.3 million. The county, which is administered by the Anshun government, also set up an office for the team in the building that houses the local commission to guide cultural and ethical progress.

The crackdown, which was overseen by the local commission for discipline inspection, was initially part of the central government's anti-corruption campaign and was aimed at regulating the behavior of public servants. However, the city government was dismayed to discover that the number of banquets being held by local residents was rising sharply, even as the campaign against official waste began to bite.

According to a statement provided to China Daily by the Puding commission to guide cultural and ethical progress, the problem was getting out of hand: "There were too many banquets. On average, each household spent about one-third of its annual income on cash gifts. To raise the money to provide cash gifts, some villagers sold crops they had earmarked as food for the family and even borrowed money at usurious rates. For the hosts, the banquets became a method of raising money, but for those attending, the practice resulted in a huge financial burden that led to many people suffering."

The statement also noted that some locals who lived in other towns and cities as migrant workers were pressured to return home regularly to attend banquets, further wasting time and money.

As a result, the focus of the regulatory team's activities was widened to target extravagant meals hosted by local residents.

At one point, banquets were held so frequently that some locals decided the only way to avoid the pressure to attend was to relocate to distant towns and cities.

Zhang Qingsong, from Tangyue village in Anshun's Pingba district, was one of the "emigres". He returned to Tangyue in 2014 after more than a decade away. During his time outside the village, he didn't even return for Spring Festival, China's most important holiday.

'Banquet ban' gives locals food for thought

"Everybody held banquets. If you worked in my hometown, it was almost certain that you would become poorer and poorer. The money you made would not be enough to provide all the cash gifts," the 44-year-old said.

"Sometimes I received more than 10 invitations a month. It was a face-related issue: If you didn't ask for leave to attend banquets, other people wouldn't attend yours, so you lost face. However, if you worked a long distance away, you had an excuse to not to attend."

Wang Hai, Party secretary of Jinma village in Anshun, said people who gave cash gifts always wanted to recoup their outlay, so they would use any excuse to host a banquet, often to mark events that were not on the list of traditional celebrations.

The problem was exacerbated by the fact that many people believed they had to give their host a bigger cash gift than they had received from him at their own banquet.

The reasons for hosting banquets ranged from the traditional to the tawdry. Some people adhered to conventional celebrations, such as marking the 30th and 100th days after the birth of a baby, while others toasted a child's enrolment at college or entry into the army. However, some people held banquets whenever they added another story to their house.

In 2013, Chen Qiang bought a new apartment in Jinma, so he held a housewarming banquet with the aim of recouping the money he had spent on his new home.

Unfortunately for Chen, the plan wasn't a success. "I spent 30,000 yuan ($4,370) on the banquet, and received about 40,000 yuan in cash gifts. However, the extra 10,000 yuan was quickly eaten up by the cash gifts I had to give at other banquets. It was troublesome, and all money was wasted on eating and drinking," said the 41-year-old former migrant worker.

Wang, the Party secretary, said the desire to keep up with the Joneses resulted in everyone losing out because the banquets became increasingly elaborate and expensive.

Wang Mingyun, a 61-year-old Jinma resident, elaborated: "If a family offered 16 courses at a banquet, other people were tempted to try and gain face by offering 18. It was common to see about half of the food provided being thrown away. It was a huge waste."

New regulation

To crack down on the practice, a regulation was drafted in February last year, and an inspection team was established, consisting of members of government departments, including the public security and civil affairs bureaus. Every village or village-level community passed their own regulations, based on the ban but tailored to local circumstances. Now, every government department, village or community committee, and public organization includes an official who oversees banqueting activities.

The regulation stipulates that banquets can only be held on the occasion of a wedding or funeral. Moreover, people are now required to give the village or community committee five days notice that they intend to host a feast. Cash gifts are still allowed, but the maximum amount is set at 100 yuan, and there must be fewer than 30 tables, each of which must offer dishes that cost less than 120 yuan each.

If public servants violate the regulation, their case will be transferred to the local commission for discipline inspection, but non-official transgressors face a punishment based on the regulations set by the local village or community committees.

In some villages, special teams have been established to cook and serve banquets, so the villagers won't be tempted to take leave from work to assist with the preparations. In Tangyue, the team comprises more than 30 members of the village cooperative, according to Zuo Wenxue, the Party secretary of the village. Residents only have to provide the raw ingredients, and the village committee will cover the rest of the cost.

The move has paid off. Last year, in Puding alone, there were 7,000 fewer banquets than in 2015, which saved 300 million yuan, according to local authorities.

"Our efforts have produced good results. We are now discussing paying villagers' funeral expenses as well. That will mean local residents will be under less economic pressure so they will remain focused on their work, which will greatly benefit the local economy," Zuo said.

Dong Xianwu contributed to the story

Contact the writer at houliqiang@chinadaily.com.cn

'Banquet ban' gives locals food for thought

'Banquet ban' gives locals food for thought

(China Daily 02/17/2017 page6)

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