[Viewpoint] Indulging in the almost-free lunch

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[Viewpoint] Indulging in the almost-free lunch

There is such a thing as a free lunch, and it can be had at the cafeteria in China’s Ministry of Transportation and Communications. According to an anonymous university professor who recently published an account of his meal there, diners can have their fill of 10 meat and vegetable dishes, a carton of yogurt and a piece of fruit for 1 yuan, or about 15 cents. The only catch: Diners have to be employees or guests of the ministry.

As Chinese government profligacy goes, this is small potatoes. But for middle-class Chinese buffeted by rising inflation and stagnating wages, the 1 yuan government lunch was a sharp reminder of the perks and privileges that Chinese government officials enjoy, and are denied to almost everyone else. Thus, it was no surprise when, early last week, “Department of Transportation and Communications cafeteria” quickly became a top search term at Baidu, China’s leading search engine, and trended on Sina Weibo, China’s top microblog.

The article that inspired this discussion, “Exploring the Government Canteens: Not All of Them Are Delicious” was published with little notice in Vista, a glossy news weekly, on March 19 by the writer Wang Xiao. It follows Lao Pan, the pseudonym for a professor who claims that his hobby is dining in government-ministry cafeterias. Neither the author nor Lao Pan spent much time dwelling on prices. Rather, the article focused on food and decor as Lao Pan goes from one cafeteria to another, eating and evaluating.

He relished the buffet at Xinhua, the state news agency, where “the grilled pork is especially delicious!” He recommended the lamb hotpot and the yogurts at the State Commission for Ethnic Affairs. And he couldn’t help but wax rhapsodic about the cafeteria at the State General Administration of Sports and its “well-deserved reputation” for tasty and nutritious food.

Prices vary, but they are invariably cheap and set on the basis of rank within the bureaucracy. So, a senior administrator might pay 5 yuan, while a member of the general staff might pay 4 yuan. Notably, at the offices for China’s People’s Political Consultative Conference, he found, for all intents and purposes, a “free lunch” where lucky diners can get four pancakes on Tuesdays. But his review was terse, leaving little reason to believe that free is worth the bother.

He was similarly short with the 1 yuan meal at the Ministry of Transportation and Communications cafeteria. The best he could say was that it offers halal, food prepared in accordance with Islamic law, and is affordable.

Were prices in China stable at the moment, Lao Pan’s government cafeteria tour wouldn’t have drawn much attention. But for weeks, Chinese newspapers, news sites and microblogs have been buzzing with news of spiraling inflation. On April 4, China was confronted with news that cherries in Chongqing were now more expensive than pork (inspiring an online discussion), and that airlines would soon add a fuel surcharge (also inspiring another online discussion).

But that was all a precursor to Monday’s announcement that China’s March inflation rate of 3.6 percent exceeded predictions. This news didn’t come as a surprise to anyone who buys food in China. But it did serve as an excuse to grouse, and by Monday the anger was palpable online.

The hashtag #One Sentence Attesting to Rising Prices# has spent much of the week at the top of the heavily censored trending topic list at Sina Weibo, attracting responses such as this anguished complaint by a Netizen in Tianjin: “Lately, the fuel-price rises, the cooking-oil price rises, the green-vegetable price rises, the shampoo price rises, the wedding-celebration prices rise, even a pancake is 4.5 yuan ... People can’t afford to drive, a meal, bathing, a wedding, even breakfast. Little is left in our pockets at the end of the month!”

Under such circumstances, it isn’t surprising that a sizable number of tweets on Sina Weibo openly question whether the March consumer price index increase of 3.6 percent is actually a lowball estimate. “I went to the supermarket and bought a watermelon for 40 yuan,” a Netizen wrote on Monday, and then cracked a joke: “There’s a mistake, CPI is 13.6 percent.”

There’s nothing new about anger at Chinese officials’ misuse of public funds for personal ends. It’s become such a problem that the use of public funds for international travel, automobiles and entertaining is characterized by the catch-phrase “the three consumptions.” They are, among other matters, a major source of corruption and, in the eyes of the Chinese public, a significant reason for the widening gap between the party cadres, and those they are supposed to be governing.

On Saturday, Cnstocks.com, a Shanghai financial news portal, published an editorial that made this point in the context of the Ministry of Transportation and Communication’s buffet:

“A 1 yuan buffet or free lunch is not just about a meal or a cafeteria, but rather reflects the darkness of the “Three Consumptions.” Only by completely managing the “Three Consumptions” can the government earn the trust of the governed. The populace pays tens of yuan for a healthy lunch, while the cadres can spend only 1 yuan or even get for free the same. How should we feel about this gap and how can the government gain our trust?”

Next time Lao Pan decides to stop by a ministry buffet, it’s the sort of question he might consider asking his fellow diners.

*The author is Bloomberg’s Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog.

by Adam Minter
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