XINYANG, China: Li Bin, a barrel-chested retiree on special assignment for this city's Communist Party boss, strode down an empty hallway of the Xinyang Middle Court in search of bureaucrats. He rattled locked doorknobs and barged into offices without knocking. A court officer retreated in red-faced terror.
The booze squad had arrived.
"Blow," ordered one of Li's young subordinates a few minutes later as he pressed an alcohol monitor to the lips of a nervous Communist Party functionary.
The target of Li's midafternoon sting last week was not just tipsy cadres but a ritual that many Communist Party officials have long considered a part of their job description: the hours-long, alcohol-soaked midday banquet (usually paid for with public money). For the past year, Li and other investigators have swooped into government offices in this grimy city of seven million people to catch civil servants partaking of the liquid lunch. One violator was fired on the spot.
With Beijing trying to rein in official corruption, the campaign in Xinyang, in Henan Province, might seem like comic relief. But public disgust with official privilege is so palpable that the campaign has attracted national attention, spawned imitators in other cities and offered a tantalizing hint at how much China's liquor industry profits from the thirst of Communist Party officials.
Wang Tie, the Xinyang Communist Party chief and architect of the crackdown, estimated that the policy saved his government almost $6 million in six months. Local restaurants have reported sharp drops in profits. Last month, the Henan Alcoholic Drink Industry Association, a trade group alarmed at losing its best customers, challenged the policy as a violation of the legal rights of civil servants.
"The country's Civil Servant Law doesn't require civil servants to refrain from drinking during their lunchtime," argued Kang Yinzhong, a lawyer for the trade group, according to state media. "Drink or not, it is the civil servant's right. Public power has no legal ground to interfere in a civil servant's life if he or she doesn't mess up their afternoon work."
Wang, the party chief, said the policy could withstand any challenges, and he proudly provided a positive editorial from People's Daily, the Communist Party's authoritative newspaper. "Everyone knows there is a problem in China with cadres eating and drinking on public funds," Wang said. "It's a big problem, and to deal with corruption you've got to start with issues like this."
Wang, who is getting fan mail, added, "We wanted the cadres to have energy for work." Indeed, service is not always a priority for government workers after a few hours of slugging down shots.
"Sometimes you'll go to the civil affairs bureau after lunch and they are sleeping or playing cards," said one Xinyang taxi driver. "Sometimes you can't even find anyone."
Drinking on the job is hardly unique to China, but ritualized drinking is deeply ingrained in China's business culture. Restaurants usually offer private banquet rooms, some with lounge areas, flat-screen televisions and private bathrooms. Tables are often set with specific glasses for beer, wine or baijiu, the fiery Chinese liquor that lubricates nearly every banqueting experience.
A banquet is considered a mandatory exercise for welcoming guests on official business. Hosts will lose face if a guest is perceived to be uncomfortable or having less than a jolly time. By this same logic, one way to ensure good feelings and build rapport is for everyone to drink. And, often, drink very heavily.
"It's like a form of communication between people," offered Zhu Xiaojun, general manager of Jigongshan Baijiu, a distillery in Xinyang. "It would be disrespectful to not drink with a guest."
Many of the growing number of foreign business executives in China would probably welcome some disrespect. Baijiu is distilled from sorghum and other grains, has the clarity of vodka or gin but contains far higher alcohol levels than most spirits. It is served in shots and its taste has been compared with rubbing alcohol or diesel fuel. Toasting is customary and can sometimes take on the bonhomie of hazing.
"When there are six people and you see three bottles of baijiu waiting on the buffet table, start eating and start eating fast," said one American businessmen in describing his survival strategy. He said he once faced baijiu at consecutive banquets for lunch, dinner and breakfast.
Banquet war stories are legion. Tim Clissold, author of "Mr. China," a memoir about doing business in China, described an evening banquet with a Chinese mayor that featured course after course of exotic food: cow's lung soaked in chili sauce, goose stomachs, fish lips with celery, goat's feet tendons in wheat noodles, ox forehead, turtle casserole and, finally, deer's penis. Round after round of baijiu toasts followed until the banquet ended and Clissold staggered from the table.
"I've never met anybody, even at the heights of alcoholic derangement, prepared to admit that they actually liked the taste," Clissold wrote of baijiu. "After drinking it, most people screw up their faces in an involuntary expression of pain and some even yell out."
Baijiu does usually enliven conversation. In 1974, Henry Kissinger played host in New York to Deng Xiaoping and commented on the powers of Maotai, the most famous brand of baijiu.
"I think if we drink enough Maotai we can solve anything," Kissinger said.
"Then when I go back to China, I must increase production of it," Deng responded.
Today, baijiu remains a major player in China's alcohol market, but nationwide production has steadily declined as rising prosperity has brought more alcoholic choices, like wines, beers and other spirits. A younger generation of business executives in cities like Beijing and Shanghai is more likely to eschew baijiu. Many prefer the golf course to the banquet table as a setting for doing business.
At the Jigongshan Baijiu distillery in Xinyang, Zhu said baijiu was a tough business with more and more brands competing for a slowly declining number of customers. He estimated that the Xinyang crackdown had cost him about 20 percent of his sales. Zhu described officials as an important segment of his customer base but remained hopeful.
"Most people can adjust their drinking to drink more at night," he suggested. "Maybe two bottles instead of one. Or they can drink more on the weekends."
Wang believes that his crackdown will not just save money and improve work performance but also liberate government officials from unwanted cultural expectations. He said many bureaucrats considered lunchtime drinking an onerous obligation. "A lot of people agree with the decision," said one city official, Shi, who refused to provide his full name. "They felt obligated to drink at these lunches. If they didn't, they would be accused of not treating their guests warmly.
"But," he added, "it was tiring."
Meanwhile, the inebriation inspections have become news media sensations. Three special alcohol SWAT teams make random checks on the city's 120,000 officials and civil servants. Offenders are usually reprimanded or shamed by accounts in local newspapers and television reports. In January, a reporter from China's state television network, CCTV, followed Li's team and filmed him catching an inebriated ranking official. Li fired him.
Last week, Li, 60, took a reporter from The New York Times on a surprise visit to the Middle Court and the city's construction commission. He said violators were quick with excuses: a good friend in town; a special family occasion; even a shot or two on doctor's orders.
"I say, 'We don't care,' " Li said.
At the construction commission, a startled secretary said, "Who are you?" when Li's team burst into one office. At the Middle Court, several offices were locked and empty, leaving open the possibility that their inhabitants were off drinking and not planning to return.
At the end of the day, Li's team tested about 20 cadres and nary a one tested positive. He made only one exception when a roomful of older men shooed him away.
"We're old bosses," one of them said, explaining why they were not subjected to the test. "We're retired."