Inside Story

Last call for China’s drinking culture?

China is waking up to the downside of its world-beating level of alcohol consumption

Linda Jaivin Big China 28 October 2021 1448 words

Trendsetter? China’s president Xi Jinping proposes a toast during a Belt and Road Forum at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in April 2019. Nicolas Asfouri/Pool photo via AP

In an upbeat video to accompany his article “The Complete Guide to Business Drinking in China,” published in Quartz in 2016, Siyi Chen assures his viewers: “If you find other people pouring drinks down your throat, don’t panic. It’s part of the game — an extreme way to show hospitality.” He further advises that “A good way to impress your boss is to be his ‘proxy drinker.’” Besides, “Drinking to your limit and beyond proves you’re sincere and brave.” Don’t worry about getting drunk — “not a problem.”

Five years on, it’s officially a problem. At a business dinner in July, a manager and client of the ecommerce giant Alibaba pushed a female employee to get drunk and then sexually harassed and raped her. The distressed young woman reported the incident to her superiors and Alibaba’s human resources division. When they took no action, she posted an eleven-page account on the company’s intranet.

Word got out and Chinese social media blew up. The hashtag “firmly refuse vile business drinking culture” attracted 220 million views and tens of thousands of comments. Alibaba CEO Daniel Zhang went public to condemn the “ugly culture of forced drinking” and fired the alleged rapist. Two other managers who had failed to act on the woman’s complaint resigned. Even the Communist Party’s powerful anti-corruption body, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection weighed in, condemning the culture of compulsory drinking at business and other dinners as “odious.”

Out came other shocking stories of sexual assault and more. There was the boss who slapped a new employee for not returning a toast by a higher-up, and the professor who forced a postgrad student to drink so much he passed out — and then refused to teach him because he wasn’t a good enough drinker. Criticisms of the contemporary drinking culture — endless forced toasts, typically with strong spirits called baijiu, and a bullying power dynamic — had been growing for years. In 2021, they reached critical mass.

Some commentators have pushed back. Drinking, they claim, is part of traditional Chinese culture. The ancient Book of Odes, compiled almost three millennia ago, contains at least twenty references to alcohol. Wine played a role in formal rites and rituals. One of the most famous works of calligraphy, “Preface to the Orchid Pavilion Poems,” celebrates an afternoon playing a game involving drinking and poetry.

One of the pithiest and most-quoted tributes to drink came from the brush of Cao Cao (155–220), a military man and a poet. Part of a longer poem, it honours the semi-mythical inventor of fermented drink, Du Kang: “How to dispel one’s sorrows? Only Du Kang.”

Li Bai (701–762), considered one of China’s two greatest poets, was a renowned inebriate. Among his many tributes to the joys of intoxication, he penned the following lines, which may well resonate with the generation of young burnt-out workers who talk longingly of “lying flat” (dropping out and doing nothing), here translated by Amy Lowell and Florence Ayscough: “Why should one spend one’s life in toil?/Thinking this, I have been drunk all day./I fell down and lay prone by the pillars in front of the house.”

Yet the drinking culture of old was not quite what it seems. For one thing, when Li Bai, in another poem, hails “a cup, a cup, and yet another cup,” he is talking about a very small cup, filled with wine fermented from fruit such as grapes, or grains such as rice or sorghum, with an alcoholic content well under 20 per cent.

Distilled spirits, baijiu, only came to be produced in significant quantities sometime in the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). Up to 70 per cent pure alcohol, baijiu was cheap and potent, predominantly a drink of the poor. It did not appear at the banquets of the rich or powerful, nor did it fill the poets’ tiny cups.

Everything changed in 1935, when an army marched with sore feet into a small village in southwestern Guizhou province. The Communists’ Red Army was in the middle of the legendary Long March, a tortuous, two-year, 9000-kilometre retreat, during which it fought off bandits, warlords and attacks by government troops while traversing some of China’s most rugged terrain, from malarial swamps to snowy mountains.

In the Guizhou town of Zunyi, the Communists made Mao Zedong their leader. In the village of Maotai, they made the fierce local baijiu their drink. It didn’t just numb pain and stave off cold. It could sterilise wounds as well, and, as Red Army generals discovered to their delight, it was perfect for soaking their blistered, aching feet.

After the Communists took power in 1949, the state nationalised and combined the handful of baijiu distilleries in Maotai, and named the product after the village (spelling it Moutai in English). In 1951, premier Zhou Enlai created a standard for state banquets. The food would be of the refined and not-too-spicy southeastern Huaiyang cuisine. The drink would be the fiery Moutai. The proletarian sauce that had played such a welcome role in one of the party’s foundational legends became the national drink of the People’s Republic of China.

Baijiu manufacture boomed. In 1949, China produced 108,000 tonnes of baijiu; by 1975, annual production had reached more than 1.7 million. The Soviet Union, where no deals were done without lashings of vodka, also contributed to the reshaping of China’s drinking culture, especially among officials. Online commentators looking for the source of China’s toxic drinking culture point the finger at one man in particular: Dmitry Ustinov, the Soviet central committee member responsible for the Soviet Union’s military-industrial complex from 1965 to 1976 and defence minister from 1976 to 1984.

Some of Ustinov’s Soviet colleagues claimed he put an end to messy drinking culture within the Soviet defence establishment. By contrast, Chinese accounts, which credit Ustinov with an almost inhuman ability to hold his liquor, relate how he notoriously insisted that negotiations, over arms deals for example, begin with marathon bouts of drinking. He would get his guests so thoroughly pixelated that they would sign off on deals they’d wholly regret in the morning. In one infamous example, when India was trying to talk down the price of Soviet arms, six Indian negotiators ended up in hospital with alcohol poisoning; the ones who remained upright blearily agreed to double the original price.

In the early 1990s, in a case of what you might call “reverse Ustinov,” the Chinese historian of Sino-Soviet relations and the cold war, Shen Zhihua, fed up with the obstructively slow pace of Russian archivists, plied them with baijiu. The files fell open.

It was in the 1990s that the Chinese Communist Party expanded its economic reforms and businesses boomed. Entrepreneurs readily adopted official, Sovietised banquet culture, with its baked-in hierarchies and negotiations over endless toasts of baijiu. To refuse a drink was to cause one’s superior or host to lose face, or so they said. And a sip wouldn’t do — the expression ganbei was a command to drain the glass in one go. A straight line led from here to the scandal at Alibaba.

Forcing people to drink as a sign of subservience was not unknown in ancient times. Cao Cao is said to have laid on a banquet for a general who surrendered to him at which he toasted each guest in turn, a strongman with an axe by his side. Refusal was not an option.

These days, China leads the world in total alcohol consumption. The legal drinking age is eighteen, although enforcement is, to say the least, patchy. But China’s younger generation, and especially those among its better-educated, well-travelled middle class, are increasingly rebelling against “bottoms up” culture. A recent survey revealed that people under forty tend to consider baijiu both bad-tasting and old-fashioned; many prefer beer and wine and even low-alcohol drinks, and bars over banquets.

In another online survey, 84 per cent of the almost 700,000 respondents expressed “extreme disgust and zero tolerance” for coercive drinking at business and other banquets. Baijiu production peaked in 2016 at 13.6 million tonnes; by 2020 it dropped to less than 7.5 million.

At one point in my misspent youth, as a young magazine reporter attending a banquet with officials from the All-China Journalists Association in Beijing, I acceded to a drinking contest. Twenty glasses of Moutai later, I declared victory. The following morning, I woke up with drums in my head, the imprint of a toilet seat on my cheek, and colour literally drained from my vision for several terrifying, sepia-tinted hours. An end to coercive and competitive drinking? I say cheers to that. •

The publication of this article was supported by a grant from the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.