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.

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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.