What's the difference between first class and business class? Apparently nothing, at least on state-owned China Southern Airlines, the mainland's largest carrier. According to a report in Tuesday’s Financial Times, the airline has decided to rename its top-end cabin as business, to get around a prohibition on Communist Party officials flying first class while on the clock. The airline has reassured travel agents that clients buying the new tickets will “receive the same service as first-class customers.”
That's one way to get around President Xi Jinping's high-profile anti-corruption and anti-extravagance drives, which he launched shortly after becoming China’s top leader in late 2012. Does this very public effort to circumvent Xi’s signature campaigns suggest that his clout -- which has been compared to that of former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping -- is diminishing? It’s too early to say. More likely, the backsliding suggests that Xi's efforts have begun to run their course. Reared throughout their careers on party propaganda, China’s officials have an innate sense for publicity stunts -- and for when they’ve stopped serving their purpose.
Notably, it’s not just the bureaucrats in charge of China Southern sensing a loosening. Earlier this year, for example, Chinese state media reported that 56 five-star hotels in China were seeking to reduce or outright eliminate their star-ratings (which are awarded by a Chinese government agency) in reaction to prohibitions against entertaining at five-star venues. And in recent weeks both foreign and Chinese media have claimed that prostitution is returning to Dongguan, a southern industrial city and target of a high-profile raid and campaign against the town’s thousands of sex-related businesses (and estimated 500,000 to 800,000 prostitutes) back in February.
In fact, nobody in China is surprised that prostitution is returning to Dongguan. It’s simply too big an industry, with too much of an impact on the local economy. The high-profile campaign against prostitution was never really about sex; its goal was to rein in the endemic corruption and flaunting of Communist Party principles that had allowed the industry to flourish on such a large scale. In fact, cynics argue that the campaign’s true target was the deeply rooted patronage networks that have flourished in Guangdong Province for decades (arguably, even longer), creating local power centers with little regard for the party elite in Beijing. Now, having weathered the anti-corruption firestorm, those networks and their business are quietly re-emerging under thinly veiled pretenses.
No doubt Xi is sincere in his desire to clean up the Communist Party after a three-decade run in which its excesses have managed to alienate many Chinese. But his efforts now seem to be focused on eliminating the worst examples of that corruption -- high-ranking "tigers" such as former security chief Zhou Yongkang -- who also, conveniently, happen to be political rivals.
That may be a calculated shift in emphasis, designed quietly to restore some of the perks that help maintain the support of lower-level Chinese officials, whom Xi needs to carry out his difficult economic and environmental reforms. Or perhaps Xi's efforts were always more about eliminating potential threats to his authority than graft. Either way, China's luxury businesses -- and not a few pampered cadres -- are sure to welcome the change.
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