What mooncakes in China can tell you about corruption and the environment

The Chinese tradition of giving away mooncakes in mid-autumn is surprisingly revealing.

Yesterday was China’s Mid-Autumn festival, a national holiday in the country that is marked with the giving away and eating of mooncakes. The mooncake tradition offers interesting insights into two trends affecting China’s economy at present: corruption and the environment.

The trial of Bo Xilai on charges of embezzlement, corruption and abuse of power has highlighted a broader malaise within China’s political establishment. His is the most high-profile corruption case, but one local government official nicknamed ‘Mr Watch’ was sentenced to 14 years in jail earlier this month after bloggers noticed the mismatch between his official salary and his impressive watch collection. Concerned at the rising public outrage, the government has attempted to clamp down on corruption and as the BBC notes, this is having an impact on mooncake sales.

Whereas in previous years deluxe boxes of mooncakes made with shark’s fin, bird’s nest, abalone or even gold or silver have been purchased by those keen to buy favours, this year mooncake sales are down, with shoppers opting for more modest mooncakes.

Another big challenge facing China is environmental damage and pollution. In January this year the air pollution in Beijing reached 40 times the limit the World Health Organisation deems safe. The World Bank estimates that environmental degradation is costing China 9% of its GDP, dragging down growth. Faced with public discontent, the Chinese government has decided to take action. This week it announced it would publish a list of the top 10 worst and best cities for air pollution each month.

A clampdown on political corruption could also have a surprisingly large impact on the environment. According to The Atlantic, the elaborate packaging on mooncakes accounts for one third of China’s waste a year, or 40 million tonnes. If this year’s anti-corruption drive really does result in a decrease in sales of elaborately wrapped mooncakes, this could have a considerable impact on the country’s overall waste production.

Should the Chinese government succeed in making long-term changes to China's mooncake eating habits, this would be a powerful indicator of its ongoing political might. No one likes making concessions when it comes to festive traditions.

A traditional Chinese 'mooncake' on sale at a busy outlet in Hong Kong. Photo: Getty

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear