Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Headlines, Health, Population

CHINA: Binge-drinking Culture Turning from Fun to Lethal

Mitch Moxley

BEIJING, Mar 12 2010 (IPS) - After Chen Lusheng, a police sergeant from the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, died in December after an off-duty night of heavy drinking with local officials, his superiors tried to have him designated a “martyr” who “died in the line of duty,” so that his family would receive greater compensation.

Given the role that drinking alcohol plays in the work and social life of bureaucrats in China, Chen’s death could perhaps indeed have been in the line of duty.

His death, which put a spotlight on alcohol abuse at China’s notoriously lavish official functions, was not an isolated incident. In 2009, three Communist Party Officials died after consuming too much alcohol. A year earlier, a drunken senior official in Shenzhen lost his job after photos and a video clip emerged online in which he appeared to molest an 11-year-old girl.

These highlight the prevalence of binge drinking in the world’s most populous country, a growing problem that has spread from officialdom to youth culture and has prompted a call for government to lead by example by reining in spending on banquets and parties.

While many Chinese enjoy a bottle of beer or two with dinner, binge drinking has long been common at official banquets where rounds of spirits called ‘baijiu’ or ‘white liquor’, distilled from rice or sorghum, are consumed to the bottoms-up toast of ‘ganbei’, which translates to ‘dry glass’.

Failure to participate can be a sign of disrespect and drinking is very much part of networking, making contacts and sealing deals.

The results are often worse than a bad hangover.

“I had to retire early not because I did not do my job well, but because I did it too well!” wrote Long Bowen, a former government official, in an article published on the Communist Party of China News Net. Long, once a promising basketball player, retired after a physical examination revealed he was suffering from diabetes, cirrhosis of the liver and ascites, excess fluid in the space between the tissues lining the abdomen and abdominal organs.

“My body was getting too weak because of all those years of ‘good work,’” he wrote.

Long was one of the lucky ones.

On Jul. 13 last year, the 47-year-old deputy director of the water affairs bureau in Wuhan, capital of central Hubei province, died after a sudden heart attack caused by excessive drinking.

Later that same month, Lu Yanming, an intelligent and highly respected official in Zhenjiang city in south-western Jiangsu province, fell into a coma after a prolonged drinking session and passed away two weeks later.

In October, Shen Hao, a party secretary in south-eastern Anhui province, died from alcohol poisoning after entertaining business associates at an official banquet.

Stories like these have placed the culture of binge drinking under heavy fire from the public, and Chinese academics have estimated that government officials spend about 73 billion U.S. dollars in public funds each year for official banquets.

In a bid to combat corruption and spending, the government has repeatedly issued edicts banning lavish banquets. In February, the Communist Party issued a new code of ethics that outlines 52 rules officials must follow, which included a ban on lavish weddings and funerals.

But the binge-drinking culture is not just confined to officialdom. In recent years, as the middle class has grown and the Western bar and nightclub culture has taken root, binge drinking has spread to urban youth culture.

On any given weekend, the mega-clubs around the Workers’ Stadium in central Beijing – with names like Coco Banana, Latte and Club LA – are heaving with hundreds of patrons, almost exclusively Chinese. They are young and affluent – and they like to drink.

“Youth binge drinking is a problem that calls for attention,” says Hao Wei, a professor of Central-South University’s Mental Health Institute. Hao says alcohol consumption has risen in line with economic development and that although the government has responded with legislation to control drinking-related problems, no national prevention programme exists.

Cao Yong, 25, a sales manager at a bank, likes going to karaoke bars and “noisy clubs” with a large dance floors. He goes to clubs most weekends and spends 200 to 300 renminbi (29 to 40 U.S. dollars) on drinks each visit. “My parents don’t know about this. They don’t live in Beijing. I would not tell them about this,” Cao says.

Liu Qingyun, a 25-year-old project manager for an information technology company, frequents bars and clubs for the same reasons many others do: They’re fun. “It’s a friend-gathering place, and you can meet plenty of new friends there as well. Also after a day or a week of work, it’s kind of relaxing to go to a bar and have some drinks.”

None of the revellers interviewed expressed concern about how much alcohol they consume, but studies have shown that youth drinking is a growing concern in China.

In 2006, the World Health Organisation reported that youth drinking in China had risen 500 percent in the past 20 years, and that up to 80 percent of beds in Chinese mental-health facilities were being used for alcohol-related disorders.

A separate study the same year by professors at Peking University found that 51.1 percent of 54,040 students between grades 7 to 12 reported using alcohol – and 14.1 percent admitted to being drunk in the past year. The study found that students with a history of binge drinking were more likely to engage in smoking, drug use, fighting and other risk behaviour.

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