Carry on banqueting

The Chinese are feeding a trouble for themselves

Here is a joke that has been doing the rounds in China: a Chinese official is invited to dinner by a contact who wants a favour from him. Towards the end of the sumptuous meal, the executive considers the nightly banquets that stretch before him: "It's not easy to be me," he tells his host. "You see this?" He looks down at his rotund stomach, giving it a melancholic pat: "Work-related injury!"

In China, we have a phrase for corrupt officials: "Big eating, big drinking." In the world's fastest-growing economy, everything starts with a banquet, and nothing gets done without food. The crabs must have been caught within two hours of their arrival at the table. Endangered species from the highest mountains and deepest seas must appear on the menu, or else it is virtually a disgrace. In the imperial days, banqueting was the special preserve of the mandarin class. During the Mao era - despite the official propaganda of asceticism - the new mandarins placed the banqueting hall at the centre of every party headquarters. For the Chinese, the Communist Party is really one vast banqueting society.

But it's not just the party that is eating to excess: today's Chinese are hooked on food as never before. There is a connection between the two phenomena. After Tiananmen, the party made a deal with the people: you can do what you like in your private lives - sin, gossip, make money - but leave the politics to us. After the tragedies of the previous 40 years, the Chinese were only too happy to grasp their liberation. The past 20 years have seen the greatest surge in wealth in China's history, and for hundreds of millions, consumption is the new religion, with food its principal deity.

Today, the role of food in society is more significant than ever. Eating out is not just an affordable entertainment for the masses; it is also an arena for self-expression. At the same time, food connects the murky worlds of politics and business. In a society based on guanxi - connections - food has become a versatile social currency: through banqueting, relationships can be developed, favours exchanged, deals done.

But Chinese bureaucrats, eating free meals for half a century, seem to have lost their appetite. What was once a perk has become an "occupational hazard". However, to turn down an invitation to a banquet, or to refuse to participate in endless toasts, is considered impolite - as the Chinese proverb has it: "Human relationships are above the law." Perhaps the same traumas lie in store for the Chinese people. As a nation of spoiled diners, we are proud of our food waste - look how rich we have become! While we carry on eating and drinking into the 21st century, an old Chinese saying echoes in my mind: "Food is the heaven of the people." Little did we know that too much eating can also be hell.