It should be the most wonderful time of the year, even in Nanjing, China. But according to a report in last Monday’s Chinese edition of the state-owned China Daily newspaper, something is seriously amiss:
“In previous years we would be going into ‘Christmas mode’ this month. But in the last few days some of Nanjing’s five-star hotels haven’t bothered to put up Christmas trees, lights, bells, white-bearded Santas, and thus we can hardly feel the Christmas spirit.”
The two are closely related -- nothing tempts an honest bureaucrat into corruption quite like extravagance -- but it’s the latter that is having a particularly hurtful impact on holiday merrymaking. As early as February, in fact, Chinese and foreign news media were reporting that the crackdown had begun to devastate hotels, restaurants and luxury retailers dependent on lavish spending by bureaucrats (with access to public coffers) and the interested parties who like to wine, dine and bribe them.
This enthusiasm for Christmas might seem rather strange for a country ruled by an officially atheist Communist Party. Yet the varieties of Christmas celebrated in China have very little to do with religion (though Christianity is growing rapidly in China and has an illustrious if small-scale history dating back at least half a millennia) and almost everything to do with emulating the atmospherics of the consumerist holiday frenzy that Americans pioneered decades ago. In Shanghai, for example, the city is filled with Christmas trees, holiday bunting and Christmas sales. Compared to its towering malls and lavishly decorated five-star hotels, the city's numerous churches are a Christmas afterthought.
The problem this year is money -- and the fact that not enough of it is sloshing around. In Nanjing, as described by China Daily, the absence of Christmas “spirit” is, in fact, the absence of sufficient incentive for the city’s high-end hotels to put out their Christmas finest.
Specifically, highly lucrative five-star-hotel Christmas Eve dinners -- some of which cost nearly $500 per person last year (or nearly twice the monthly minimum wage in Shanghai) -- are going for roughly one-third the price this year. Some hotels, according to the paper, have canceled the lavish feasts altogether for lack of demand.
According to a Shanghai hotelier I've known for many years, Christmas Eve had been “the single biggest-grossing night for Shanghai’s food and beverage industry over the last decade.” But the price of a Christmas Eve dinner now appears to be averaging below $200 per head, according to one city guide’s listings (though there are a handful of notable exceptions). All of this adds up to a much gloomier holiday for the five-star hotels and luxury malls that define Christmas in China’s cities.
According to a Dec. 13 story in the state-owned Shanghai Morning Post, many businesses have even decided to forgo the expense of hiring a “genuine” Santa Claus from Finland this year (an expense, according to the paper, that can run more than $30,000 when fees, airfare and accommodations are added up). Instead, they are opting to hire part-time Santas from China’s ranks of expatriates, especially students, who tend to command fees that generally top out around $160 per day.
This is all good news for a Communist Party that -- via the national Central Commission for Discipline Inspection -- warned its members not to buy “fireworks, alcohol, tobacco, flowers, and food” during the late-January Chinese New Year celebrations. In a Tuesday column published on the Shanghai-based Eastday portal, blogger Ye Chang explained that the decline of the gold-plated Christmas Eve dinner is about much more than public corruption.
“Now that the spending of public funds is no longer a part of the Christmas Eve celebrations, the high-end Christmas Eve entertainments will go away, too," Ye wrote. "Young people will stop worshipping foreign things, blindly pursuing Western culture and high-end consumption. Meanwhile, the Christmas markets will return to a normal and rational state that’s affordable to everyone.”
It’s unlikely that Xi Jinping spends much time worried about the economics of a Chinese Christmas. But there’s little question that an opinion like this one falls very much into the propaganda program of his one-year-old government. Indeed, the ideas embodied here -- hostility toward the corrosive influence of the West, the need for a cleaned-up Communist Party and, above all, the drive for expanded economic opportunity for all -- fairly well summarize his domestic agenda during his first year in office, minus the smog mitigation.
That attitude won’t make anybody rich, perhaps. But in Xi Jinping’s China, that’s not what Christmas is supposed to be about anyway.
(Adam Minter, the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog, is the author of “Junkyard Planet,” a book on the global recycling industry.)