Peter Chi knows he has to cut back on his drinking. It is not much fun at the best of times, and the worst have included hospitalisation — after drinking fake alcohol — and the numerous evenings when he has passed out at the table. “No one likes binge drinking, but it’s not under your control,” he complains. “Of course I don’t like it, but there’s nothing I can do.”
Chi, from northeastern Liaoning province, is not an alcoholic. Nor is he a party animal, despite his four-times-a-week binges. But as a respectable head teacher in his 40s, he feels he has little choice but to indulge — or risk harming his career. In the West, binge drinking is associated with young men and women spilling out of pubs and clubs in the early hours of the morning. But in China drinkers are older and, in many cases, drinking for career reasons.
“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.”
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,” says the recruiter, adding that the successful candidate will need to handle 250 to 500 millimetres of baijiu at a time. The clear spirit, usually made from sorghum, ranges in price from as little as five yuan — just more than R5 — to tens of thousands of yuan for vintage bottles of the best brands. It is a staple of formal or celebratory dinners and is often coupled with beer. It is also notorious for causing inebriation because it is about 40% to 60% alcohol by volume and frequently consumed in large quantities.
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.
Drinking to develop and cement relationships has a long history in China. “When one drinks with a friend, a thousand cups are not enough,” is one traditional saying. That does not mean bingeing has been the norm: in the 1980s, a study of Chinese classical poetry concluded that heavy drinking had been in and out of favour over the years. Experts have suggested that Chinese habits — consuming alcohol with food, playing drinking games and toasting in a highly ritualised fashion – served to regularise alcohol intake and limit drunkenness.
But in the past few decades consumption has soared, fuelled by increased personal freedoms and rising incomes. “Excessive drinking, frequent drinking [five to seven days a week] and binge-drinking behaviour have reached epidemic proportions among current drinkers in China,” warned a study published in the journal Addiction last month.
The authors, led by Li Yichong of the National Centre for Chronic and Non-communicable Disease Control, found that only 56% of men and 15% of women drink. But of those, 57% of men and 27% of women binge. Bingeing and excessive drinking were most common in men aged between 35 and 44, and frequent drinking increased significantly with age, whereas in “Anglo” cultures alcohol consumption usually peaks in the late 20s or early 30s, the paper noted.
The government has pledged to tackle driving under the influence, but bingeing does not otherwise seem to lead to much antisocial behaviour in China. You will not see people urinating on the street, or the equivalent of beered-up rugby lads pulling down their trousers for the delectation of passing women.
The main issue is the damage that drinkers are doing to themselves. China is still some way off the cirrhosis death rates seen in Britain or Japan, according to World Health Organisation figures.
And in more cosmopolitan and educated circles, overindulgence is often regarded as somewhat déclassé, suggesting that perhaps heavy drinking may fall out of fashion again. Anecdotally, friends suggest that people are increasingly willing to make excuses on health grounds or surreptitiously dilute their baijiu with a mineral water bottle hidden under the table.
But such changes cannot come fast enough for China’s reluctant drinkers. “Health is a big concern of mine. Even if things seem okay right now, there’ll definitely be problems when I get to 30 or 40 if I keep drinking like this,” says Bruce Wang, a young businessman whose work involves regular boozing sessions with clients.
“I get drunk a lot … It’s impossible to feel good about it.” —