China bans ‘gift’ ads in bid to curb graft

February 6, 2013

China has banned television advertisements touting expensive watches, gold coins and other luxury items as “gifts for leaders” because of concerns that they will undermine public faith in government.

The country has been hit by a wave of corruption scandals in recent months, with a string of officials exposed as owning vast numbers of homes, luxury watches and other trappings of illicit wealth.

Xi Jinping, who will become president in March, has launched a campaign to clean up the system, vowing to target the “tigers and flies” — both the high- and low-ranking officials — who have benefited from graft. Amid growing public anger over inequality, Xi has warned that corruption could “lead to the ruin” of the ruling Communist Party and the nation as a whole.

The new advertising rules issued by the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT), a censor-cum-regulator, are the latest in Xi’s austerity drive. He has ordered civil servants to spend less on banquets; the military has barred soldiers from drinking liquor at official meals; and state-owned companies dramatically scaled back the parties they threw ahead of the Chinese New Year holiday, which begins next week.

SARFT, which regularly bans television shows seen as too racy or politically subversive, said broadcasters have a responsibility to support Xi’s efforts to stamp out ostentatious displays of power and privilege.

China’s new leadership team: The Politburo Standing Committee, which effectively runs the country, consists of mostly older, conservative establishment figures.

“Some television and radio stations have broadcast advertisements with ‘gift giving’ slogans such as ‘premium gift choice,’ ‘a gift for leaders’ and ‘giving honor to your superiors,’ and the ads have been for a wide range of products including famous watches, rare stamps and commemorative gold and silver coins,” it said in a statement published on its Web site Wednesday.

“These ads transmit an incorrect value system and can easily foster a harmful social atmosphere,” it added.

The regulator ordered broadcasters to stop such ads from reaching the nation’s airwaves.

It was not clear how strictly it would enforce the new rules — whether it would interpret them literally, barring only ads that use the forbidden phrases, or whether it would take aim at any ad that carries the insinuation of gift-giving.

“As a cosmetic exercise, it’s all about pleasing a group of people who are never going to get given a gift,” said Paul French, chief China market strategist at Mintel, a market research firm. “The trouble with this advertising is that lots and lots of people who are never going to be able to afford one of those watches get to see it.”

The steady drumbeat of anti-corruption messages from Beijing has already had a chilling effect on the market for luxury products, from jewelry to high-end liquor, in recent months. However, some analysts believe the dip in sales might prove short-lived, as has happened when previous campaigns against graft have ended.

Gift-giving is seen as an integral part of building successful work relationships in China, and it can be a practiced art. China Central Television, the main state-run broadcaster, has devoted entire business programs to guiding people through the complex process of figuring out what are appropriate gifts to give bosses.

Scores of Web sites also provide a similar service. One site, lingdao.liyi99.com, offers tailored selections of jade, gold, tea and ceramics depending on whether one is buying a gift for a male or female leader, and whether the occasion is a holiday, a promotion or a wedding.

— Financial Times

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