In the firing line

Anti-corruption drive hits fine porcelain sales

In the firing line

The city of Jingdezhen in Jiangxi province has an important place in the history of Chinese porcelain. During the Song Dynasty local craftsmen discovered a technique that used high temperature to create ceramics treasured for their translucency and elaborate design. “Porcelain was called ‘white gold’,” Jan Stuart, head of the Asia department at the British Museum told the New York Times last year. “Porcelain really was the first global good. It was crated all over [the world].”

Jingdezhen’s pottery is still popular. For hundreds of years it was a sought-after commodity among wealthy Europeans. But nowadays, the town is much more dependent on a more local client base, including government officials and those wanting to curry favour with them.

Over the last decade, the giving of pottery as gifts has helped the local ceramics industry to thrive. In 2011, the value of Jingdezhen’s pottery output climbed to Rmb6.375 billion ($1.02 billion) a significant jump on the Rmb5.09 billion made the previous year. But as Beijing clamps down on corruption, cracks are starting to appear in Jingdezhen’s profit outlook (rather than in its pottery itself).

Feng Jun – an experienced collector – told China Economic Weekly that the period between October and Chinese New Year is typically the peak time for purchases of porcelain. But with the government targeting the giving of gifts to officials, Jingdezhen has been hit hard.

At first Feng had supposed that ceramics would prosper from the new effort to curtail gift-giving, launched at the Party Congress last November. His view was that other gifts – such as tobacco – would go out of favour.

But fine ceramics have also become part of China’s complex web of corruption. Accepting a fat wad of notes is both inconvenient and indiscreet (the largest denomination banknote is Rmb100, which makes even a modest pay-off difficult to trouser surreptitiously). So other items that can be interpreted as gifts but hold a significant cash value offer a more portable solution for big-ticket bribes.

Porcelain has a second advantage too: there are no clear pricing standards. In fact, Jingdezhen’s craftsmen have a vested interest in this state of affairs.

One potter told China Economic Weekly that he was visited by corruption investigators curious about the value of a particular piece of pottery he’d made. The suspicion was that an official had accepted the item after its market price had soared to Rmb5 million. But the potter insisted the piece was only worth about Rmb5,000. It made it harder to prove that the official had been bribed and no charges were made.

This after-sales service partly explains why Jingdezhen’s pottery community is favoured by the craftier corrupt. But there’s another reason too. “It is not only safer to accept porcelain as a bribe. Prices of masterpieces have great room for appreciation with the passage of time,” another potter told China Economic Weekly.

Feng also illustrates just how much a piece of pottery can increase in value. Eight years ago a Guangdong official received a ceramic plate worth about Rmb130,000. It is now worth Rmb2.38 million, Feng claims.

“Prices will keep soaring at an even faster rate than houses,” he said.

But the current crackdown is casting an unwelcome spotlight on the trade and potters are seeing slower sales. So is it just a passing phase, or will Xi Jinping’s new ascetic stance become a permanent state of affairs, damaging Jingdezhen’s business prospects in the years ahead?

Most think the former. “Greater transparency, rule of law and democracy are the only truly effective ways of fighting corruption. The current anti-corruption campaign does not feature any of these,” Shanghai-based lawyer Yan Yiming told the Financial Times last month.

One newer factor in determining more cases of corruption is the prevalence of Sina Weibo. As WiC has frequently noted before, China’s version of Twitter has claimed the scalps of a large number of officials in the past, and in recent months there have been more cases exposing homes that bureaucrats couldn’t possibly afford, and photos showing off luxury watches similarly beyond their payrolls.

Perhaps the next stop for eagle-eyed netizens is to hire a few porcelain experts to help them in their work…

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