Austerity Bites for Delegates to China's National People's Congress
   2014-03-03 15:15:02    Agencies      Web Editor: Jiang

Shark's fin and abalone are conspicuous by their absence. Vintage wines will stay tucked away in the cellar.

As deputies gather in Beijing this weekend for the annual National People's Congress (NPC) session, many are bracing themselves for a fortnight of unusual austerity.

The legislature of the world's largest country is also the wealthiest - among its 5,000 members are more than 80 billionaires.

The annual gathering has always provided good networking opportunities for the country's rich and powerful, but the days of excess seem to be over.

Even for Hong Kong business leaders, who are used to lavish parties, the entertainment outings during the annual sessions in Beijing are legendary.

Jeffrey Lam Kin-fung, a Hong Kong member of the country's top political advisory body, recalled a dinner he attended at the Anhuacheng restaurant in the capital during the congress.

A six-course meal for five people cost Lam's host, a fellow deputy, 45,000 yuan (HK$57,000) - the equivalent of an average worker's annual salary in Beijing.

"We, the host included, were shocked as we never imagined it could be this expensive."

Lam believes such luxury dinners will now be a thing of the past after the crackdown on official extravagance by President Xi Jinping .

He said: "Austerity is a positive change beneficial to the state. I believe demand for luxurious food and wine will decrease, making them cheaper."

But he said deputies would continue to socialise, even if they have to do so in a less glamorous style. "Members are so busy during the day with meetings that dinner provides a chance to communicate."

The nightly indulgence at Anhuacheng restaurant is popular with many members of the NPC and Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC).

Ma Fung-kwok, a Hong Kong deputy to the NPC, recalled: "I had a three-course lunch for two at the place and the bill was 3,000 yuan (HK$3,800)."

Even the local media was shocked by the prices at the restaurant. The Beijing Times reported in 2007 that an "average" banquet for 12 people at Anhuacheng would cost 100,000 yuan.

The restaurant has quietly removed the expensive items from its menu this year. A manager at Anhuacheng said many of those booking for the banquet dinner were NPC deputies. "We have many guests who are [NPC and CPPCC] deputies from different provinces," she said.

This year, the restaurant has revised its menu after Xi's call for austerity. The restaurant now serves only "regular dishes" and there will be no minimum charge for the private rooms.

The most expensive item on the menu - abalone that costs 2,000 yuan a portion - has disappeared from the menu.

The manager said there were still tables available for the next two weeks, but they were being booked up quickly.

Thomas Cheung Tsun-yung, a catering industry leader in Hong Kong, said he was forced to close his restaurant in Beijing after Xi's crackdown on official extravagance.

"Business at my restaurant, Diamond, plummeted after Xi gave the order. So our family decided it was time to get out," he said. "The whole high-end catering market [in Beijing] just collapsed as its primary source of custom is disappearing,"

Each year, before the national conference, local legislators and advisers would hold their own sessions. These meetings may offer a taste of things to come at the national level.

A Hong Kong member of the Chongqing provincial political consultative conference said he noticed a distinct change from last year.

"Suddenly, for the welcome party, we were shown to home-style dinner buffets. So many people were having to share the food, there wasn't much to eat," said the delegate, who asked not to be named.

"The year before it was so different. We even had a band performing at the welcome dinner," he said. "This year they just played recorded music."

Bowie Hau Chi-keung, a member of the Huizhou political consultative conference, also described their meals as "simple and frugal".

He said: "There are some fried noodles, sausages and greens. That's about it."

(Source: The South China Morning Post)

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