Variations include stuffing cash in the packages or including coupons to buy other things, Rein said. He added that Xi’s crackdown may be forcing people to opt for more low-key gifts like herbal medicine.
Mooncakes are also involved in a peculiar form of tax evasion by Chinese offices, which give them to employees as gifts. Instead of an actual mooncake, it is common for companies to buy coupons at a discount from manufacturers to be redeemed at shops. That eliminates the cost and effort of transporting large amounts of food that could spoil in the late summer heat in fancy packaging that could be damaged. Many workers do not actually redeem them, and instead sell them for cash to coupon scalpers like Zhang.
“The companies are happy because it’s a business tax write-off, the employees are happy because they get money and they don’t have to pay income tax,” said Rein. “If it’s a state-owned enterprise, it’s the laobaixing — the everyday Chinese — who are bearing the brunt of the costs for these illicit incomes.”
Zhang was one of 15 scalpers who set up shop with a stool and sign offering to “recycle” mooncake coupons in the pedestrian passageway near Shanghai’s East Nanjing Road. The scalpers were buying coupons for half their face value and selling them for 75 percent.
Zhang, who takes three weeks off his job as a hotel lobby manager every year to trade mooncake coupons, complained that the frugality drive had hurt his business. He said that when he finds a seller, he usually gets just one or two coupons.
“It was often eight or 10 coupons last year,” he said.