Blue moon

Let them not eat cake…


It’s the time of the year that mooncakes make their annual appearance. They come stuffed with anything from lotus paste to salted egg yolk as the ritualistic staple of China’s Mid-Autumn Festival, which fell on Thursday this week.

As WiC has documented in previous issues, mooncakes are hardly an ordinary pastry (see WiC79). The confection has also been used as a gift for business associates and officials. The higher the recipient’s status, the more lavish the cake might be: some are packaged in bejewelled boxes, often with cash, liquor or watches hidden within.

But mooncakes have become the latest casualty of President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption drive. The People’s Daily is reporting that the government has banned the use of public funds to buy the pastries, saying: “Polite reciprocity, when overdone, becomes a kind of squandering of cash.” China’s anti-graft tsar Wang Qishan has offered similar advice: “Giving gifts like costly mooncakes… has deviated from the traditional virtue of frugality, and buying them with public funds has eroded the Party and social atmosphere.”

Vendors say the austerity drive has hurt their revenues. In the city of Guangzhou, mooncake sales are at their lowest in 10 years. Similarly in Chengdu, where sellers say sales of luxury mooncakes have fallen by half – although more traditional lotus-seed and sesame-paste varieties were holding up better.

“Government offices almost disappeared from our customer list this year,” says Chen Yaoliang, general manager of Xinya Cantonese Restaurant, a restaurant in Shanghai that also makes mooncakes. “People who come to buy mooncakes these days are usually gifting to friends and relatives so they opt for the cheaper kind around Rmb200 ($32.66) a box. They also don’t buy in large quantities.”

Foreign firms have also slashed their mooncake budgets. “We found that this year’s mooncake orders from pharmaceutical companies have dropped to virtually zero. This could be related to the GlaxoSmithKline corruption scandal,” an observant manager at Shanghai’s Ritz Carlton Hotel told CBN (GSK is facing a corruption investigation, see WiC203 for details).

But the mooncake industry is still sizeable. There are more than 10,000 manufacturers, collectively producing more than 280,000 metric tonnes of pastry annually. The market is thought to be worth Rmb15 billion, says the Hong Kong Trade Development Council.

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