Chinese authorities have launched a crackdown on “sky high” mooncake prices ahead of the Mid-Autumn Festival.
Mooncakes, a small customary baked dessert, are traditionally given to family and friends to celebrate one of the most important holidays in the Lunar New Year.
International online shopping guides have collated the best places to find the most luxurious boxes of mooncakes to impress friends and relatives for the celebration of the fall harvest. Some individual cakes cost more than the equivalent of US$20 or have luxury branding.
However, under Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平), such opulent gifts are heavily regulated.
In the lead up to the festival, authorities have targeted sellers who are overcharging or offering “excessive packaging” that exceeds strict limits on production costs and banned ingredients. As part of the campaign, sellers are also required to keep mooncake sales records for two years.
Law enforcement officers have inspected 180,000 sellers and suppliers since early last month, the state administration for market regulation said.
Authorities said that the average box of mooncakes costs about 70 yuan (US$10) to produce and should not exceed a retail price of 500 yuan, Chinese-language media reported.
About 80 percent of products were sold for less than half that, but some sellers were flouting the regulations by pricing their cakes at 499 yuan or combining them with increasingly extravagant gift packages, local media reported.
Some have bundled them with other products such as nuts or liquor, mislabeled them as “pastry gift sets,” or sold them as part of high-end packages at hotels.
“The cake is still the same cake, but the box is expanding year by year,” one local media report said.
The mooncake giftbox market is reportedly worth about 16.9 billion yuan in China, and producers have become increasingly inventive to stand out from the rest.
Clarissa Wei (瀏覽者), a Taipei-based journalist and author of an upcoming Taiwanese cookbook, said that the giving of mooncakes en masse began in the middle of the 20th century in Hong Kong and spread to mainland China.
They were now a “status symbol” with an element of competitiveness, she said.
“Over the years, the packaging has become more and more elaborate and is, in many ways, just as important — if not more — than the pastries themselves,” Wei said. “There’s also a lot of hype around the packaging; many brands will spend up to a year designing their mid-autumn mooncake boxes.”
China’s mooncake crackdown — which also occurred at least twice before in 2013 and 2014 — is a sign of the Chinese Communist Party’s push to curb societal excesses.
Other campaigns or laws have discouraged expensive wedding celebrations and “vulgar” practices that reflect “rampant money worship,” limited the number of dishes a table can buy at a restaurant and introduced fines for the promotion of performative overeating.
“These [high-priced mooncakes] not only deviate from the origin of traditional culture, but also contribute to extravagance and waste, and have a negative impact on the social atmosphere, and may even be alienated into a carrier of corruption,” one official told China News Weekly.
In China, some sellers have suggested the apparent return of expensive mooncake sales in defiance of the ban is linked to China’s economic woes.
One Nanjing retailer, selling standard mooncakes and fancy packaged ones, told reporters that business was much worse than in previous years.
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