At first glance, number 71 looks much like any other Qing dynasty building in Beijige San Tiao hutong, an old alley way in central Beijing. With walls made from grey brick, it sports a traditional tiled roof and its heavy double doors are painted a deep red.
But this particular building is brand new. And when shiny black cars begin pulling up outside each evening, its purpose is revealed.
“It’s a private club owned by the agricultural ministry,” a man who owns a nearby shop told WiC. “You can’t just go in. You have to be invited.”
The club consists of two ornate courtyards, divided by a modern glass cube which functions as a dining room for those who don’t mind being seen by other members (but not others). The development also has a state-of-the-art kitchen and an elevator for cars to reach an underground garage.
For the first year of its existence the club was fairly quiet, but since last December and Xi Jinping’s Eight Provisions — new rules to prevent officials from spending public money on luxury items (see WiC182) – it has become increasingly popular.
Number 71 is far from alone. Discrete clubs in parks, historical buildings and other hutongs across the city are all benefitting from Xi’s austerity drive, according to media reports, as officials seek to enjoy fine dining away from the public gaze.
“High quality restaurants report they are hosting fewer official banquets now. However some people have changed their strategy from eating publicly to eating secretly. Private clubs and secret restaurants have now become the new place for ‘mouth corruption’,” an investigative report on state news channel CCTV 13 claimed last week.
The coverage — which was given massive play across all CCTV’s news channels — showed official cars parked outside clubs (some with their number plates removed) and featured a waitress saying that banquets could run to as much as Rmb6,000 ($971) per head in her establishment.
“During the NPC and the CPPCC we had lots of officials come here,” she said, in reference to the nation’s annual parliamentary session.
Cartoons circulating on weibo have also been encapsulating the lengths to which some officials will go to continue feasting at taxpayer expense. One shows a table on which there is only a thermos and several small bowls for tea. But then a waiter lifts up an edge of the tablecloth to expose the real banquet underneath. The caption says “internal canteen” – a reference to the claim that some officials have even been inviting chefs from five-star hotels to come to their office canteens to cook for them.
But first prize for culinary subterfuge goes to a group of policemen from Henan province.
When a Xinhua reporter turned up to document an extravagant Lunar New Year banquet and tried to see their booking on the hotel’s computer, the policemen simply ordered that the power be turned off.
Then they arrested the reporter.
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