For the last several months, China's local leaders have thrown themselves into a frenzy of official visits to learn, for instance, how neighboring comrades broke the bean sprout production record - the sort of thing that would make Chairman Hua Kuo-feng proud.
Or would it?
Like American taxpayers wondering about the latest congressionaljunket to Capri, the Chinese man in the street has begun to smell something funny about the working dinners that accompany these "socialist emulation" trips. It is the aroma of meat, wine and pastries he rarely sees at his own table.
This isn't an emulation campaign. It's a diners' club program," one reader has written the official People's Daily. "This isn't the way to encourage people to work enthusiastically and humbly. They're making a lot of noise and holding eating contests."
The accusation provides one more sign that the Chinese are not always as spartan and single-minded as they seem. They often appear to be looking for ways to wring a little unpreletarian pleasure out of days full of work and propaganda.
The newsstands and book stalls in China offer row upon row of grey Marxist or Maoist tracts so that even the most stilted translations or foreign fiction sell out at incredible speed. Movie theaters and television sets are still so few and so short on entertainment that a sidewalk chess game will draw a big neighborhood crowd on a warm night.
Thus it is undstandable that is a nation that has led the world in developing the recreational delights of eating, the strict rationing of meats and other delicacies has encouraged the more resourceful Chinese to whip up any excuse for a government sponsored feast.
Reporting on such activities in one Manchurian county, the People's Daily said: "These occasions included meetings, work inspections, performance tours, helping others to carry out coordinated operations and procurement agencies' placing of orders."
"Even reporters on the scene to cover these events were invited and entertained as guests," added the anonymous People's Daily reporter in an apparent mixture of shock and fascination.
The county's imaginative officials had invented "18 reasons for extravagant dining" before the party began to crack down in 1975, the newspaper said. This year the practice had poped up again in places throughout the country to warrant a lengthy denunciation across the front page of China's leading newspaper. The initial story about the problem brought a new avalanche of letters this month to the People's Daily from readers all over the country.
After Chairman Mao Tse-tung died last year and his most dogmatic and disruptive allies in the ruling Politburo were purged, the new Hua administration decided to get the economy back in shape by encouraging local officials to compete against each other. Each locality was supposed to study how another had bested it in production of wheat or tractors and then try to turn the tables in the next fiscal year. But, the People's daily complained, in "some localities . . . the local leading organs have, to the people's discontent, preferred to invite persons to wine and dine under pretense of visits and accepting or challenging other localities for emulation campaigns. Over the past several months the People's Daily has received many letters from readers who scathingly critcizied this undesirable practice."
What could be made of an official broadcast from the autonomous region Kwangsi Chuang describing how "deeply educated" that region's 36-member delegation had been by its 11-day visit to Kukien Province. The delegation said it found the "masses of cadres and people are in high spirit and an excellent situation of stability, unity and liveliness is emerging in Fugien Province."
Three days later a broadcast from Fukien sternly recommended, to every part of the province, new regulations for visiting officials. These included requirements that the visitors buy their meals at the local canteen, restrict themselves to one additional dish and no wine for guests, and never do their own cooking.
Just how much impact such rules can have on the gastronomically inclined Chinese remains to be seen. The official press spoke approvingly of drunken celebrations last fall when the dogmatic "Gang of Four" in the Politburo was purged. Now they seem concerned that such partying doesn't become a habit.
A foreign visitor to China in April noticed that official guides who never strayed from the party line in discussion politics would relax and dispute openly with higher authorities when the subject turned to food. It seemed to be one area where, by general agreement. Chinese could be expected to occasionally let themselves go.
One evening in Peking, after a suptious dinner of Peking duck for a visiting American journalist given by a high Foreign Ministry official, the journalist and a very junior Chinese interpreter strolled back to their car. The interpreter, from southern China, had mentioned earlier the lean ducks he was accustomed to back home.
"What did I tell you," he said of the succulent fowl that had just been served him.