In a narrow Hong Kong street filled with the tang of dried sea creatures, shopkeepers are blaming China’s recent corruption crackdown for falling sales of expensive banquet foods such as shark fin and abalone.
Such items have fallen off the menu since China’s new leadership came to power demanding austerity from Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and military officials as a means of reigning in graft and dampening public anger over corruption.
Suppliers, restaurants and hotels in the trading hub of Hong Kong all say the loss of appetite from the mainland has thinned out sales in a market looking for a portion of China’s estimated annual 300 billion yuan (US$49 billion) expenditure on state-funded banquets.
On Hong Kong’s “Dried Seafood Street,” the center of trade in dried delicacies, shopkeeper Leung Wing-chiu (梁泳潮) said sales were down 20 percent at a time when increased ethical awareness over shark fin and rising rents are pressuring business.
“Beijing’s frugality campaign has driven money out of my pocket,” said the 94-year-old, who is also the president of the Dried Sea Food & Grocery Merchants Association.
“Demand from mainland buyers, especially hotels and restaurants, has shrunk a lot. This is particularly true for high-end goods such as dried abalone, shark fins and bird’s nest,” Leung added.
Two catering companies listed on the territory’s stock exchange even cited the government’s emphasis on frugality as they issued profit warnings to shareholders last month.
Leung said China’s state-funded banquet culture was a key source of revenue, and while the economic slowdown had affected business over the past few years, “the situation has got a lot worse since the new leadership ascended to power.”
Chinese officials have long held lavish liquor-drenched receptions as a way of building business relationships, greasing the wheels of power, and showing off wealth and status.
The Jiu San Society, one of China’s eight legally recognized non-Communist political parties, last year called for a curb on government spending on such banquets, which it estimated at US$300 billion a year. Other academics put the figure even higher.
And in June, Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) launched a “thorough cleanup” of the CCP, vowing to target extravagance and waste.
The Central Military Commission had already banned lavish banquets for high-ranking officers at the end of last year, while party officials were handed similar new rules.
Former high-flying Chinese politician Bo Xilai (薄熙來) is currently on trial for corruption and revelations about private jet flights and rare animal meats have held Chinese readers spellbound.
Zhu Jiangnan (朱江南), China Studies coordinator at the University of Hong Kong, said banquets were in a “gray area” of corruption.
“Actually, in China, the word ‘corruption’ [fubai 腐敗] is linked not only with ... graft, bribery and embezzlement, but also unhealthy tendencies ... such as extravagance and waste,” she said in an e-mail.
Wong Hiu-wan, a shopkeeper selling bird’s nests, which have been used in Chinese cooking for centuries, blamed the directives from Beijing for a slowdown in business.
“Now, we have to count more on local consumers, because orders from mainland hotels and restaurants have gone down dramatically,” he said.
And Yeung Wai-sing (楊位醒), the chairman of the Association for Hong Kong Catering Services Management, also had reason to regret China’s newfound abstemiousness.