Shark attack

Government in soup, again

Shark attack

Off the menu: shark's fin soup

It is often said that one of the advantages of China’s one-party system is that it gets things done fast.

That being so, many Chinese netizens were left wondering about a government pronouncement last week that forbade officials from eating shark’s fin soup. The source of annoyance? The new rule wouldn’t take effect for three years. Why not immediately, asked supporters of the ban?

Anger at profligate spending by officials has increased in recent years, leading Hu Jintao in May to declare that all government bodies down to the county level must publicise their expenditures on cars, travel and banquets. In addition – in part due to the work of basketball player Yao Ming (see WiC124) – more Chinese are aware that increased demand for shark’s fin is pushing some species towards extinction.

Hence the annoyance that the ban did not come into effect more immediately. The delay was widely ridiculed. “Have our officials got so used to the good life that they need three years to be weaned off this soup,” asked one commentator on Sina Weibo.

First prepared during the Ming Dynasty (1388-1644), for centuries only the wealthiest could afford shark’s fin soup – a dish said to nourish the skin, prevent heart disease and improve sexual potency.

But as China’s economy has boomed, consumption of the product has risen dramatically, even as Chinese communities around the world have often begun to shun it for ecological reasons.

Campaigners welcomed the new ban last week saying they hoped it would undermine some of the appeal of the dish. But for policymakers, there is also a cost imperative. “The ban will lower the cost of official receptions,” China’s State Council said on its website, adding that it would also help “the Discipline Department to do a better job in supervising and punishing those who are profligate with official funds”.

Last year the central government spent Rmb1.47 billion ($230 million) on entertaining, Xinhua reported. Provincial governments spent millions more of their own money.

But some weibo wits said they doubted a ban on shark’s fin soup would cut government entertainment bills. One netizen said that bureaucrats’ desire to show off with their culinary choices meant that they would just seek out another rare or expensive item. “Next we’ll hear they are eating Panda,” he mocked.

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