The Rise of Binge Drinking in China

At The Guardian, Tania Branigan examines China’s soaring alcohol consumption, and the social and professional pressures that help drive it.

“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,” Chi explains. “People want to show they are forthright and try to get along with others … It’s very normal to get an order to drink from bosses.”

In fact, some job adverts explicitly demand applicants who can hold their alcohol. “Candidates with good drinking capacity will be prioritised,” says one for the Hunan Zhike Public Security Engineering Company, an alarms and surveillance technology firm that is seeking a business manager.

“The job is to develop business through establishing closer connections with our clients. Drinking is a big part of the work,” explains the recruiter, adding that the successful candidate will need to handle 250 to 500ml of baijiu at a time ….

Alcohol certainly greases the wheels of business in the west, too, but people can usually stop after one or two glasses. In China, the opposite is often true: it is much easier to refuse an initial drink than to stop once you have started. Foreigners are not immune to the pressure – one friend recalls being poured half pints of baijiu by an overly hospitable local official, who paused briefly to vomit before topping up his glass again.

Foreign companies have been investing in baijiu distilleries, primarily targeting—for now—overseas Chinese markets. From Scene Asia at The Wall Street Journal:

Baijiu isn’t for the easily tipsy. Richard Nixon’s advisers famously tried to keep the president away from the strong Chinese liquor (baijiu translates as “white spirit”) at state dinners during his first visit to China in 1972.

That didn’t stop Diageo, the world’s largest spirits producer, from in June acquiring a majority stake in Shui Jing Fang, a premium baijiu label. Now Diageo is seeking to modernize the brand and take it beyond China and Hong Kong ….

Even outside China, Diageo is focused on the overseas Chinese community, [Lee Harle, the company’s general manager for baijiu] says, pointing out that Diageo also sells Shui Jing Fang at duty-free shops in 14 airports around the world. “We’re planning to go where [Chinese] business travelers go,” he says ….

One thing’s for sure: Diageo will be facing stiff competition. In 2007, luxury group LVMH Moet Hennessy bought a 55% stake in Wen Jun, a baijiu distillery, for 960 million yuan. Pernod Ricard also has a stake in a Chinese baijiu maker.

See also: China Laps Up Luxuries on the growing appetite of China’s rich for fine imported wines, and the difficulties of persuading foreign drinkers of the merits of baijiu.

Sources:

The rise of binge drinking in China – Comment is free – The Guardian
Is the World Ready for Baijiu? – Scene Asia – WSJ

August 22, 2011 11:58 PM
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