In its bid to fight against corruption—or at least be seen to do so—the Chinese communist leadership said it is going to hit dirty officials where it hurts: in the stomach.
Private dining clubs in Beijing have been targeted in a recent crackdown, because they have become “a new place of bribery and corruption,” according to recent official notices. The Beijing Commission for Discipline Inspection, the city branch of the central anticorruption agency, said that it noted “the unhealthy trend in clubs” in recent times, and now intends to shut down all high-end private clubs in the city. Other cities are pushing their own crackdowns, according to Xinhua, the state mouthpiece.
But observers wonder: once the private clubs close, what will stop corrupt officials from simply taking their business elsewhere?
‘$1,653 For One Meal’
For a businessman to indulge in a luxury dinner with an official isn’t just about feeding the stomach—it can also feed business, according to executives quoted in Chinese reports. Luxury private clubs have become popular places for wheeling and dealing because of their privacy and opulent surroundings.
The chairman of a real estate company in Hebei Province told Xinhua: “It’s very common to spend more than 10,000 yuan ($1,653) for one meal. Who knows, maybe the official leader is happy and then gives you the project?”
Mr. Wang, another executive, said: “The dinner has a price, but the relationships you get through dinner are priceless.” He added: “It’s convenient to know some really powerful people. Those officials have less bureaucratic airs at the dinner table. Dining is just a form, relationship investment is the essence.”
Even high-level officials can attend the clubs without worrying about their activities being exposed. One top club in Beijing has a series of checkpoints for guests, where they have to show identification and answer questions about who invited them before they can get in.
“There have been very high level officials dining here. We won’t leak customer information,” an anonymous source at a club in Guangzhou City told the Chinese press.
The privacy of the clubs is virtually guaranteed by the exorbitant member fees: they range from thousands to tens of thousands of dollars a year. Some top clubs require millions of dollars for annual membership.
“For high-level officials, those private clubs not only keep their privacy well protected, but also allow them to enjoy high social status. People conveniently meet their economic needs, political needs, and social needs there,” said Li Yongzhong, vice president of the China Academy of Discipline Inspection and Supervision, a kind of official think tank for the Communist Party’s anticorruption agency.
At least 24 of these high-end clubs and restaurants in Beijing have been found and shut down, at least according to official reports. Such places will have to reduce their price, cancel private rooms, and let regular people in.
The West Lake Park in Hangzhou City of Jiangsu Province ordered 38 high-end restaurants to shut down or “rectify” their operations before Jan. 25, according to the state mouthpiece China Central Television.
Large public parks like West Lake—essentially a kind of nature reserve, with trees, a lake, pagodas, and so forth—are often home to private clubs like those now being shuttered.
Now the authorities say that such ostentatious consumption is “absolutely not allowed” in such parks and other historical sites.
Despite that the entire anticorruption push is ultimately being driven by fears of the Party’s decaying legitimacy, and whipping these high-end clubs is meant to show that the leadership is serious about cracking down on the playgrounds of communist aristocrats, the news of the shutdown garnered a tepid public response.
The primary thing that observers wondered about was how effective it would really be. And why were the clubs themselves—rather than the corrupt officials who take their bribes there—being punished?
That the Party took what appeared to be an arbitrary measure in its anticorruption push did not appease many Chinese, who want to see rule-of-law reforms and an independent legal system, rather than capricious, politicized, and temporary measures.
“They simply put a big title of ‘anti-corruption’ on it, and you are fooled?” remarked netizen Dayushuomanhua.
“What’s the difference between confiscation of land from landlords and combining private companies and state-owned enterprise in the past? What’s the difference between this and forced demolition?” the Internet user continued. “The private clubs legally rent the place and run the business. What’s wrong with that?”
Another netizen Jinderou21 also remarked: “The government should manage their own people well. It fails to do that but blames others. Are they trying to find a scapegoat?”
Cheng Xiaonong, a Chinese economist based in the United States, told Epoch Times in a telephone interview: “Does it mean that by closing those private clubs there will be no other places for the corrupt officials to go? It sounds like a joke. In fact, the Party is just putting on a show for the Chinese people. It wants people to applaud it.”