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Fiery Brew Is The Oil That Greases The Wheel

January 16, 1989

BEIJING (AP) _ Maotai, China’s fiery brew with a kick that would make a moonshiner smile, has become an ″all-purpose grease″ for bribing bureaucrats and cajoling cadres, a newspaper says.

The China Youth News also blames profiteering by government officials for maotai’s high price and criticized China’s tradition of ″special privileges″ for creating conditions that allow the problem to flourish.

″In this society even the most righteous of gentlemen’s agreements can be turned into the most vulgar of schemes,″ said the article Sunday.

The article was significant in that it showed the extent to which corruption has entered the life of the average Chinese. It also tacitly acknowledged that price rises instituted over the summer for 13 name brand liquors had failed to break a black market stranglehold on the goods.

Just about every major moment in a person’s life in China requires a bribe of good booze, the story said.

″Entering nursery school, starting grade school, changing schools, beginning a career, changing jobs, getting a license, helping a loved one to the hospital, even sending a corpse to the crematorium could all use a few ‘grenades’ of good liquor,″ the story said.

A cartoon of a soldier holding two ″grenades″ of maotai as he prepared an assault on a government building accompanied the article.

″If you have liquor, even in a difficult situation, problems are solved as the bottles are handed over and glasses raised in a toast,″ it said. ″If you don’t, there are many things you will never accomplish. Good liquor indeed has become society’s all-purpose grease.″

The best ″grease″ of all, the article said, is maotai, a clear liquor made from rice with a taste resembling airplane fuel. Youth News estimated that 90 percent of the maotai purchased in China was not consumed by the buyer.

″The people are using maotai, they are not drinking it,″ it said.

In July, China freed the price of maotai and 12 other brand name liquors in an attempt to break a stranglehold that the black market had on the products. By making the state price equal to the black market price, China hoped to put the profiteers out of business.

A fixth of Maotai shot up from $5.40 to $81, but still the profiteers haven’t disappeared, Sunday’s article said.

″These prices are enough to frighten the people, but distillers and liquor sellers aren’t afraid,″ it said.

The reason is that because maotai and other good spirits are still scarce, only officials with special powers can buy them.

The article said officials never would use their own money to buy the goods but would dip into the public till.

It cited statistics that in some counties, government officials spend 50 percent of their budget on eating and drinking.

″Some officials buy a case of liquor and put it to use,″ the article said, ″but others buy a case and immediately sell it to make money ... Money that is created through connections and power.″

Some officials, the report said, have taken to making bogus brand name liquor, again in a ploy to capitalize on the expensive spirits.

In one county in Shanxi, 60 percent of the 118 distilleries manufacture fake brand name booze. According to incomplete statistics for 1988, more than 20 million bottles of bogus liquor have been seized.

″Fake brand name liquor is becoming so commonplace that liquor sellers are getting nervous, liquor buyers are getting nervous, even brown noses who buy liquor to curry favor are getting nervous,″ it said.

The article called on the government to enforce a regulation issued in October forbidding officials from using public money to buy liquor.

But its tone was pessimistic.

″This problem is rooted in the ghost of the past,″ it said. ″Special privileges, dependence relations and a stratified society - their power in China is still very strong.″