Foot Spas, Steamed Buns, and Midday Drinking

Chinese Bureaucracy Has Run Amok, and the Country’s President is Trying to Rein It In

It may not be Monty Python’s famous “Ministry of Silly Walks,” but it’s close.

The Office of Forbidding Midday Alcohol Consumption, a local government initiative in China’s southern Henan province which seeks to reduce alcohol consumption at government-funded lunches, is just one of 130,000 such petty committees that Chinese authorities hope to decommission. According to an October 22 report in state news service Xinhua, such “redundant” local committees are being streamlined out of existence following the June 2013 launch of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “mass-line campaign,” which seeks to fight corruption by bringing cadres in the ruling Communist Party closer to the people they ostensibly serve. Some of these committees advertise their own ponderousness—the name of one, now eliminated, was over 60 characters long—while others have invited scrutiny with names like “Leading Group for Popularizing Foot Spas” and the “Steamed Bun Office.” Below are a few of the more incredible offices once found in China’s massive bureaucracy:

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Hostesses wait to serve drinks to the country’s top leaders during a banquet marking the 63rd anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China on September 29, 2012 at the Great Hall of the People.

The Office of Forbidding Midday Alcohol Consumption

This office was established in 2007 after the government in the city of Shangqiu in Henan province forbade officials from consuming alcohol during the day. Staff members wait at the doors of restaurants, randomly inspect offices, and talk with officials to see if anyone has disobeyed the rule.

The Leading Group for Popularizing Foot Spas

The idea for this mild-sounding committee in the northwestern city of Xianyang came courtesy of a city-level Party secretary often called the “Foot Care Secretary.” After the group’s formation in 2002, a new spa opened every four days for the next four years, according to a 2006 article from the independent newspaper Southern Weekly. The foot spa office once distributed a protective order forbidding public security agencies from inspecting local foot spas without notifying the city’s general labor union, according to a July 2013 report in the liberal Beijing News. (Foot spas are often thought to be hotbeds for prostitution.)

The Watermelon Office

This organization in Zhengzhou, the capital of the central province of Henan, helps suburban farmers sell their watermelons in the city by creating a “watermelon map” to connect buyers and vendors. The watermelon office isn’t short on social media savvy; the office now boasts over 50,000 followers on its verified account on Weibo, China’s Twitter.

The Steamed Bun Office

The proliferation of steamed bun offices has been causing trouble since at least 2001, when a local paper reported that in Zhengzhou alone, there were a total of six steamed bun offices at various levels, all of which held the power to approve (or to halt) the production of buns, a staple food for Henan residents. Jurisdictional conflicts often took place between these six offices, and the Zhengzhou city government later revoked their charters. But that hasn’t stopped other provinces from operating their own steamed bun regulatory committees. An October 23 article in Beijing News showed staff from the steamed bun office in the ancient capital of Xi’an conducting a spot check on the weight of buns in a local kitchen.

The Office of Ragweed Eradication

Ragweed, a flowering plant and bane of allergy sufferers everywhere, is also an enemy of agricultural products; invasion causes loss in crop yields and decline in pasture productivity, particularly in northern China. In July 2012, the government of Pingshan District in Liaoning, a province in northern China severely affected by ragweed, created its Office of Ragweed Eradication to degrade and destroy the offending plant. The office is in charge of mobilizing the local masses to get rid of ragweed and providing them with technical support.

Provincial SARS Prevention Headquarters

It’s true that Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, terrorized China—in 2003. Yet Liaoning, a province in northeastern China, didn’t disband its SARS Prevention Command until June 2013. (Beijing, one of the cities severely struck by the virus, closed its prevention headquarters in June 2003.)

State media may be trumpeting Xi’s mass-line cleanup a bit prematurely. Some of the cited organizations continue to exist. After the publication of Xinhua’s critical article, the director of the Watermelon Office told one news outlet that the office would not be disbanded and would continue to serve farmers next year. There is no evidence showing the Pingshan government has gutted its ragweed removal outfit. And according to the website of the Xi’an Grain Bureau, its version of a steamed bun authority still persists.