Why an online drinking challenge is running up against Party rules

Drink w

Taking to the bottle: a female model accepted the challenge and posted this image online

What does Ebola have in common with the Ice Bucket Challenge? First, both spread ‘virally’ and, second, the two each made the top five most Googled terms for 2014. (Robin Williams, the American actor who died in November, topped the most-searched-for list.)

The Ice Bucket Challenge, in which participants dump ice water over their heads before nominating others to do the same, is also considered the first truly global video meme (see WiC250). But the fundraising campaign wasn’t the first internet sensation of its type. Neknominate, an online craze in which people down large quantities of alcohol and then challenge others to do the same, also made headlines last year, starting out as exhibitionist nonsense but soon turning into something deadly. By February, at least five young men had died after “necking” dangerous cocktails.

Over in China a similar drinking game is also worrying the authorities. Somewhat like Neknominate, the “baijiu challenge” sees its participants down large amounts of hard liquor (which can be up to 60% proof).

The craze began late last year after a video in which a man was punished for arriving late to a party. His penalty was to bottom-up a jin (roughly half a litre) of baijiu in less than 10 seconds. The video did the rounds on Chinese social media and the unknown man was dubbed “Brother One Jin”.

But one-upmanship has long been part of China’s drinking culture. People began posting videos of themselves outdoing Brother One Jin. Soon Brother Two Jin, Three Jin and Four Jin were clamouring for national attention. The craze climaxed when a man in Henan necked the equivalent of three litres of baijiu from a huge mixing bowl (rice wines such as Moutai are usually consumed from small shot glasses). Viewers were quick to nickname him “Brother Six Jin”. But as video of his astonishing act went viral, speculation mounted that he had died after the challenge.

Brother Six Jin, surnamed Ku and in his mid-thirties, was forced to film another video to deny the rumours.

“Hello I am Brother Six Jin. First I am sending this video to clarify that I am very well. Secondly I want to say you all need to be careful when drinking,” he said, before confessing that he had needed to have his stomach pumped after the baijiu challenge, and that he would now be quitting drinking altogether.

“Brother Four Jin” also admitted that he had actually knocked back four bottles of water in one of his own clips, and warned others against trying to repeat the feat with alcohol.

“For your own health, your family and social responsibility, don’t blindly follow the craze. Drink responsibly,” he beseeched.

In another case an employee of a distillery in Henan told reporters his company had hired a man to pretend to drink six bottles of baijiu as a promotional effort.

Like the Neknominate trend in Western countries, the baijiu challenge is being met with stiff opposition by the local authorities. “The Ice Bucket Challenge is about doing something stupid for charity. The baijiu challenge is simply stupid,” Henan Daily warns. Combined with China’s occasionally extreme drinking culture, it could grow into a dangerous trend, the newspaper thinks.

Binge drinking is common in some careers, the Global Times also notes. Some job adverts even demand that applicants be able to hold their alcohol, with good drinking capacity thought to be important for developing business relationships with clients. “Alcohol has always been a gateway to making connections,” the newspaper admits. “Those skilled in drinking and schmoozing can often put their ambitions on the fast track.”

But these are also practices that President Xi Jinping wants to discourage, especially at the banqueting tables frequented by Party officials. Bans on bureaucratic boozing are one of the so-called “Eight Rules” that Xi dished out in late 2012. The austerity effort calls for a curb on government spending and displays of extravagance. The directive has resulted in a slump in baijiu sales (see WiC210).

Government watchdogs are upping the ante in the fight against the dangers of alcohol abuse too. In a new TV documentary series jointly produced with state broadcaster CCTV, the Party’s top disciplinary watchdog has revealed some telling stories behind Xi’s campaign to improve officials’ behaviour.

The documentary cites the case of Fu Xiaoguang, the first official to be demoted for breaching Xi’s Eight Rules (he was censured not for corruption but improper conduct). In January 2013, Fu, then a senior official in Heilongjiang, threw a party at a scenic spot and used a local forestry administration fund to foot the bill. The gathering degenerated into a heavy boozing session, with wee drams turning into high drama the following morning when the forestry administration chief was found dead in his hotel room (his drinking had led to a heart attack).

“We were under great pressure to entertain our superior officials,” one of the guests told CCTV, before acknowledging that such an event could no longer take place.

“In the past, many officials were keen to visit us… You couldn’t afford to slight them,” he told the broadcaster. “But now, such guests are few.”

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