By Qian Gang
Media in the People’s Republic of China rarely, if ever, offer the straight scoop on what is happening politically. But sometimes the odd twist in the Party’s stiffened discourse can give us tantalising clues — little morsels to feed our curiosity.
Appearing recently on the public account of the official People’s Daily on the popular WeChat platform, the following editorial prompted a wave of interest. The piece bore the headline: “Party Members and Cadres Should Find Honour in Returning Home for Dinner.”
Why the interest?
The construction “finding honour in ____” (以……为荣) is routinely used in the discourse of the Chinese Communist Party, with phrases like “finding honour in labor” (以劳动为荣) and “finding honour in hard work and frugal living” (以勤俭为荣) appearing relatively early in the Party’s history.
More recently, former President Hu Jintao introduced his own formula for the proper conduct of Party officials in 2006, the “Eight Honours and Eight Shames” (八荣八耻), which a government website at the time called a “new moral yardstick.”
So why should the idea of “finding honour in returning home for dinner” (以回家吃饭为荣) be of interest to anyone?
First, we must consider those situations in which one might not return home for dinner — assuming one is a Party official. First, you might be too busy at work. Second, you might be treating others for a dinner out. This novel phrase, “finding honour in returning home for dinner,” is directed at the second scenario.
Back on January 22, 2013, quite early in his first tenure as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi Jinping addressed Party leaders at a conference of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the CCP’s anti-corruption body. In his speech, Xi urged leaders to “go out less for entertainment, and return home more often to have dinner” (少出去应酬，多回家吃饭). The admonition was directed against the widespread abuse of public funds by officials holding lavish dinners out, often with expensive liquor, while ostensibly doing the business of the Party-state.
For the idea of “returning home for dinner” to become mixed up with this moralistic discourse about “honour,” and for it to be elevated in this way politically, suggests that while the Party has actively pushed an anti-corruption agenda under Xi Jinping, and has sought to restrain the use of public funds for evening entertainment, the problem is still widespread enough to cause concern.
The People’s Daily public account pointed out that there are now people who “have transferred eating and drinking activities from hotels to private residences and work unit dining halls, who have gone from the extravagant use of public funds to relying on their bosses.” Also criticized was the conduct of some Party members in ostensibly using their own wallets to “organize the department” (组局) for dining out.
All of this subtly remonstrative language in the People’s Daily public account article, directed at officials inclined by force of habit and privilege to stuff themselves at public expense, drew mockery from internet users who lack even the opportunity to dine on public funds.
The response from one WeChat user, who identified himself as an 80 year-old man, was a mix of puzzlement and irritation: “What honour is there in returning home for dinner?” he asked. “For more than 70 years, I’ve returned home every single day to have dinner, and never have relevant government departments offered me some sort of merit certificate to do so. Where is the honour? Let me go looking for it.”