The East is Drunk: Hammered and Sickled in China

Part of a two-week series on the pull of bad influences in our lives and in the culture.

When a British businessman died of alcohol poisoning in a Chongqing hotel earlier this year, it seemed completely unremarkable to anyone who had worked in China. Boozing—heavily and to great personal detriment—is such a common practice in China that an old China Hand could easily have had a run-in with counterfeit, contaminated alcohol. Or he just overdid it.

Of course, that was no run-of-the-mill British businessman and it wasn’t alcohol that poisoned him. But it was probably the commonality of “baijiu culture” accidents that led his assassins to choose a method that would look like it was. It’s not at all uncommon for Chinese government officials or businessmen to literally drink themselves to death in an attempt to show off to peers and superiors.

The pressure to drink, and drink a lot, is so great that even Mormon Jon Huntsman admitted he tippled while serving as U.S. Ambassador to China.

In 2009, a Guangdong police officer who passed away after drinking to excess at an official event was said to have “died in the line of duty.” He received the official designation of “martyr,” which greatly increased the compensation his family received. The officer’s death came just after another official, ironically with Wuhan’s water resources bureau, also succumbed to too much drink.

While not the official cause of death, the Guangdong cop and the Wuhan cadre died of inadequate jiuliang (酒量), which literally means “booze capacity,” or in common usage, “ability to hold one’s drink.” In modern China, showing off one’s jiuliang, often on numerous nights (or afternoons) a week, is part of doing business or being important. Like the eighth rule of Fight Club, if it’s your first time, you have to drink.

In fact, you pretty much have to drink no matter how many times it’s been. That’s the whole point of what has been branded “ganbei culture.” Ganbei (干杯) is the Chinese toast which directly translates as “dry glass,” and means something between “cheers” and “chug!” And if you hear it, well, at least you’re still conscious.

Luckily, the cup you’re about to chug is probably a small shot glass. Unluckily, if it’s small, it means it is probably filled with baijiu (白酒), the catch-all name for one of a number of Chinese spirits that westerners most commonly compare to kerosene or jet fuel.

While getting plowed has a long, colorful, poetic history in China—one of drunken poet laureate Li Bai’s most famous works is about waking with a hangover and immediately hitting the bottle—Ganbei culture and its importance in business is a more modern phenomenon.

Chengdu resident Derek Sandhaus, an American editor and author of Tales of Old Peking and Tales of Old Hong Kong, observed in an interview, “Over-consumption of baijiu seems to be more of a modern phenomenon. People discussing baijiu consumption in the dynastic times often note the absence of public drunkenness in China as opposed to what they would commonly see elsewhere.” While many westerners avoid baijiu at all costs, Sandhaus recently started a blog (300 Shots at Greatness) to chronicle his journey as a baijiu enthusiast. As he wrote, “my first positive encounter with baijiu happened about 75 shots in.”

Though, in true China Hand form, it’s rumored that “Huntsman would drink the clear alcohol once and then switch to water, hoping no one noticed after the first round.”

As mentioned, one illustration of just how much pressure there is for foreigners to show face can be seen in Jon Huntsman’s decision to forego his Mormon beliefs to drink baijiu at official banquets while an ambassador to China in 2009 to 2011. Though, in true China Hand form, it’s rumored that “Huntsman would drink the clear alcohol once and then switch to water, hoping no one noticed after the first round.”

And there’s no better indicator of just how important boozing is at official levels than China’s stock market. The highest dividend in the history of China’s A Shares stock market was paid to investors in 2012 by baijiu maker Kweichow Moutai.

And when Premier Wen Jiabao issued an edict that government funds could no longer be used to pay for luxury alcohol, top baijiu brands like Moutai and Wuliangye saw share prices fall over 6 percent. When Henan Province slapped a ban on cadres drinking during lunch, local baijiu sales were said to have fallen by a third. Baijiu manufacturers challenged the ban. Meanwhile, the same year that the policeman was martyred, the capital of Yunnan Province, Kunming, instituted a ban on forcing officials to drink. A week into the ban it was reported that “New ganbei ban yet to nab cases.”

In the city of Xinyang, one estimate put spending on official boozing at $2 million per month. Beijing University School of Government Professor Li Chengyan estimates that officials spend $73 billion each year on banquets, much of which goes to baijiu. No wonder that big names like LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy) and Diageo are getting into the baijiu business. Yes, there is also a “Jackie Chan baijiu.”

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One’s jiuliang is not static: the more one joins in ganbei culture, the better one does in ganbei culture, and the more one is required to participate in ganbei culture. It’s an upward spiral. Provided, of course, one doesn’t die a martyr in the process.

A “redrawn battle line” is how Sandhaus himself describes his jiuliang: “For a while my record stood at twelve shots, then it jumped to 21 after a very sloppy lunch with the folks at Kweichow Moutai. Later on, I split a bottle of baijiu with the manager of Fengyong Erguotou in Beijing and I thought that was about as much as I could handle. But then I drank one and a quarter bottles with the manager of Shuijingfang.”

The absurdity of ganbei culture is represented by (unconfirmed) reports from China expats of rich and especially important Chinese business officials who have begun hiring surrogates specifically to do their dangerous binge drinking for them. They’re outsourcing their jiuliang.

Sandhaus suspects that some of ganbei culture can be explained by men drinking little in college and then hitting “that embarrassing keg-standing, shot-gunning phase of their drinking lives much later.” Nonetheless, in modern China, being able to drink is, he said, “a relevant professional skill.” He continued, “If you’re going to work with someone, you are expected to go out to dinner with them. The senior or more important party is expected to act as host, part of which means providing alcohol and making sure your guest has drunk his or her fill. To refuse the kindness of your host, for whatever reason, can be seen as throwing a wrench in things and potentially disrupting the relationship. Thus if you really want to succeed in the Chinese business environment, you’re going to have to drink a lot of baijiu whether you like it or not.”

One cautionary tale comes from Adam Sherlip, the executive director of The Hockey Foundation who was hired to coach pro hockey in the northern city of Harbin. In a post for World Nomads, Sherlip wrote that his was an “amazing experience that contributed heavily to where my personal and professional life has progressed” but that it also “left me wondering how I could have prepared and behaved differently.” With no time to recover from the flight, Sherlip writes that “We… had a session on the ice, followed by drinking a fair portion of baijiu (Chinese liquor) and then going back on the ice.” As a pro athlete tip, he dryly added, “Drinking before and after hockey every day is not part of my normal routine.” Sherlip soon began passing on the baijiu, telling his hosts “no ganbei.” How did that work out for him? “As a result of my saying no, my nickname quickly became ‘No Ganbei.'” After his return to America, Sherlip reevaluated his experience thusly: “I could’ve just explained the value of maintaining a strict diet for hockey that excluded so much alcohol. It would’ve been a respectful way out, instead of just saying ‘no’ without explanation.”

The reasons for taking every offered shot are complex and many. The situation was best summed up by a 40-something head teacher last year when he told The Guardian, “If I drink, it doesn’t necessarily help me get promoted. But if I don’t, it’s less likely that I will be. So I must drink, even if it’s not pleasant at all,”

This reality is even the official party line. A few years ago, The China Daily, the state’s official English language newspaper, offered some advice to foreigners for success at a Chinese business banquet: “How to refuse a toast?” wondered the paper. “It’s impolite to refuse to drink when a host suggests a toast, as the refusal will make the host lose face, or not feel respected.” Oh, and also: “Sometimes&mash;for instance, being late or having made a mistake (jokingly), you may be ‘punished’ to drink three glasses of alcoholic beverage in succession to show you’re sincerely sorry. This ‘punish toast’ is, of course, just for fun.” Got that? Just for fun.

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Many China expatriates weary of baijiu have developed their own ganbei culture subterfuges. One can surreptitiously cut red wine with water. Some replace a cup of baijiu with water. (The drinks look the same.) In a pinch, others substitute in Sprite (Just be careful as the carbonation bubbles are a giveaway, and getting caught probably results in a three-drink “punish toast.”) One American lawyer in Shanghai said she drinks her baijiu when called upon, but “[I] hold it in my mouth and immediately afterwards pretend I’m taking a sip of water or beer to wash it down, but really I’m spitting it back into the water or beer glass. So far, no one has noticed, or at least, not publicly called me on it.”

Another technique is to shift the focus to another drink. During an earlier stay in China, a colleague and I used to bring a bottle of Jack Daniels to meetings that we suspected would be extra wet. We had discovered that our Chinese counterparts found Jack Daniels too bitter. By insisting every baijiu shot be followed by one of Jack, we slowed the rounds down considerably. Not an ideal solution, but anything helps. A long-time resident of Beijing, John, said that since all booze is most commonly consumed from small shot glasses, “a good win is if you can get the party to switch to beer.” He added, “And if one is so lucky, be smart and go with a beer like Suntory with a lower than average alcohol content.” Beer is also less likely to be counterfeit.

A lot of expats may find themselves taking the “signs of alcoholism” questionnaire every week or wondering if that indigestion is really a failing liver, but Sandhaus said counterfeit drinks pose the “main health risk” because of the substandard ingredients used. When a Jiangsu auction house offered free inspections of baijiu bottles, it found that 30 percent of all those brought in were fakes. And that was a far lower percentage than others have found.

Then there are those who have decided that if something had to suffer, it would be their business prospects. Paul, a former college athlete who has been doing business in China for 20 years, said that, after a while, he found that he was drinking nearly every day, all the time. Strolling through a Shanghai park, he shook his head, shrugged, and said, “I just finally told everyone, ‘I don’t drink.’ I told my staff. Everyone. Eeeeeeeevvvvvryone. Under no circumstances will I drink.” So far, it’s working.

“Generally if you make it clear before the bottle gets cracked that you aren’t a drinker or you have some health reason which precludes you from drinking alcohol, the host will give you a face-saving out,” said Sandhaus. “I think you get into the most trouble when you start drinking with everyone else and then try to stop, because at that point you’ve already established yourself as a participant and to not return another’s toast could be seen as bad form.”

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Obviously, a society that embraces ganbei culture poses particular hazards for those with existing alcohol issues.

Alcoholics Anonymous now has meetings in Beijing, Chengdu, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Kunming, Xiamen and Hong Kong, amongst other cities. It also offers online, Skype-based meetings. In Shanghai, some meetings are in the Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church; others are in the basement of a “Donut King.”

Counterfeit drinks pose the “main health risk” because of the substandard ingredients used. When a Jiangsu auction house offered free inspections of baijiu bottles, it found that 30 percent of all those brought in were fakes.

As a matter of trivia, while AA-affiliated doctors were laying groundwork as early as 1995 in the country, ex-pats did not hold an official meeting until 2000. It was still illegal for Chinese nationals to participate until 2002. While it has no religious affiliation, AA was founded by Christians and makes use of Christian texts, and that association did not make official acceptance easy. As a result, the meetings attended by Chinese men and women were, and still are, based in hospitals. Yet, after an initial period where AA was viewed at a suspicious distance, the state is opening up to promote it. In 2010, within a span of two days, the China Daily ran two different stories casting AA in a very positive light.

While meetings are now held in many major cities, the organization still has few members. The meetings in Chengdu and Beijing attract, by various reports, a dozen or so. In 2010, the China Daily cited an AA source as saying report stating that 1,000 had attended at least one meeting. But AA keeps no rolls, and is not in any way centralized, and nobody today even seems sure where that figure came from.

With such a limited understanding of alcoholism, many expats, in locales strewn across China, face the stresses alone. A recovering alcoholic in an industrial city with only a small expat community said, “I immediately order peach juice or blueberry juice upon arrival with a client. I toast every ganbei with peach juice or blueberry juice or water.” In two years of this strategy, only once has he been asked why he does not drink.

Another expat who spent five years in Beijing and now lives outside Shanghai, said, “I always give the same answer and have never had any problem. I tell them the truth. I’m allergic to alcohol and can’t drink it.” That he found help through AA is only rarely mentioned.

He continued: “I’m personally always proud to say I don’t drink and Chinese people have always been respectful of my decision and refusal to drink alcohol. Besides, I always notice that when the people start getting really drunk they never notice the difference of whether I’m sober or drinking.” Furthermore, he finds it “absolutely, unequivocally not true” that drinking is a job requirement in China: “It sounds so extremely silly and stupid to me when someone tells me they relapsed because everyone one else was drinking and they felt pressured to drink as well.”

In fact, while a couple of the expats who’ve struggled with alcohol addiction that I spoke with admitted that China’s drinking culture can be dangerous and, as one put it, “I do have to remind them more often than I would like,” all were adamant that teetotalism had no impact on their personal or business dealings whatsoever.

As a point of optimism, Sandhaus noted that there are Chinese toasts that allow for a loophole, “something to the effect of: ‘If our relations are strong, all drinks are alcohol.'” In which case, yes, that Coca-Cola is baijiu.

One way out of the drinking trap? Don’t be a man about it—literally. One female Harvard MBA representing a large U.S. company said, “I am usually expected to drink one or two glasses and get a huge round of applause for doing that. I am considered lihai [bad-ass] when I have two glasses. And when we have to join in for further rounds my glass is always only filled a little.” A female expat legal scholar said, “I found it easy to deflect baijiu drinking by a gentle remark that I’m not accustomed to drinking it. Most Chinese seem to take that as ‘I can’t handle hard alcohol’ and leave me alone.” Plus, she said, her new pregnancy “is wonderful for baijiu avoidance.”

Another expat female professional agreed that she is pushed less to consume baijiu but added, “Most men, American or Chinese, don’t take women that seriously in the business setting anyway. Alcohol is not going to change that either way.” In fact, she said, “It probably would work negatively if a woman were a big drinker.”

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The fog may be lifting. A few foreigners who’ve been in China for extended periods say they see signs, however slight, of ganbei culture’s ebbing. Bob, an expat with more than a decade in China who now tries hard to beg out of binges, said he feels that “Chinese people are moving away from baijiu binges in their personal lives and at work.” He sees a trend toward wine, “but not in massive quantities like baijiu.”

Sandhuas sees a natural apex “at some point.” As he pointed out, younger Chinese are embracing wine, whisky and beer. The beer market in China, already a quarter of the global total, is only going up. Meanwhile, Sandhuas said that baijiu has always been an older person’s drink, so it’s unknown if new drinking habits will hold over time.

Sandhauas’ contacts have told him that it’s an increased interest in healthy living that’s caused the spike in sales of huangjiu, a “yellow wine” that’s undistilled and lower in alcohol content. And the Hurun Report’s most recent 2012 “Chinese Luxury Consumer White Paper” revealed that China’s high net worth individuals (HNWI), perhaps having more to live for, are becoming far more health conscious. One third have regular medical checkups and 10 percent have a personal physician. The report adds, “There is also a clear rise in the proportion of both male and female HNWIs who neither drink nor smoke. The number of male HNWIs who do not smoke rose from 35% in 2010 to 50% in 2011, whilst those who stopped drinking rose from 19% in 2010 to 25% in 2011.” (Emphasis, mine.)

Just before the Lunar (“Chinese”) New Year holiday The China Daily published an article titled “Learning to refuse toasts in the season of ganbei.” Though in English, the article did not focus on foreigners, but rather to Chinese trying to avoid the onslaught of a season of ganbei. It reported on a “drinking strategy” class at the Harbin Weiliang Institute of Interpersonal Relation. More than 200 graduated in 2012, the course’s third year. One satisfied graduate, a 48-year-old local construction company manager, said he had learned to “say I shouldn’t drink because I’m driving or joke that my wife gets bad-tempered if I come home drunk.”

Will China’s stereotypically bad-tempered women save Chinese men from their stereotypical bad drinking habits? Only time will tell.

All kidding aside, a potential decline of ganbei culture would be a bright spot for those headed out this very night (or afternoon) to subject themselves to endless rounds, possible unexpected contaminates, that early morning vomitous heartburn and other baijiu collateral. Maybe, just maybe, China has reached “peak ganbei.”


Previously in series: Bad News Brenda


Abram Dylan is the pseudonym of a journalist who writes about China. He can be contacted here.