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Pushing for sobriety in Church-state relations in China?

HONG KONG (UCAN): Ahead of the Chinese Lunar New Year, an editorial in the official newspaper, The People’s Daily, criticised the ingrained drinking culture in which government officials indulge in lavish spending of public funds.

In some official circles, drinking with guests and other officials has become an important part of their job, inducing unhealthy tendencies of corruption, ignorance, perverseness and flattery, the article published on January 10 notes.

Officials have become accustomed to making deals and decisions at dinner tables.

A popular verse in China says, “If top officials don’t drink, they won’t have any friends. If middle-ranking officials don’t drink, they won’t have any information. If junior officials don’t drink, they won’t have any hope (for promotion). If officials of disciplinary inspection departments don’t drink, they won’t have any clue.”

Mainland media also reported that the annual cost to government offices for official banquets could total some 600 billion yuan ($686.02 billion), nearly as much as the published national defence budget.

Besides wasting taxpayers’ money, another negative consequence shows up in the poor health among officials, with many suffering from liver problems. But it seems difficult to change the drinking culture among officials, as the government has no clear legislation or guidelines on such behaviour.

Alcoholic tendencies have long been part of Chinese society, but not a serious problem in the Catholic Church, said Father Peter Peng Jiandao, of Handan, in northern Hebei province.

“I never rely on drinking to secure Church rights,” said the priest, who is a member of the provincial Political Consultative Conference, an advisory body of the government.

“I drink with officials at banquets only out of politeness. After a few drinks, I tend to explain to them: ‘I’m a Catholic priest and cannot get drunk, as this is against the Church’s commandments. I hope you can understand’,” he said.

“Most officials respect our decision, unless we cannot control ourselves,” he said, adding that while Chinese officials are unlikely to get any promotion if they do not drink alcohol, the same does not apply to Catholic clergy.

Father John, in southern Guangdong province, where there are frequent social engagements, reported similar experiences. “Self-control is most important. If you don’t drink from the very start, no one will force you to do so.”

But in Chinese culture, “it is difficult to refuse someone who toasts you, empties his or her glass first and pressures you to drink. You have to drink a bit to give the officials face and respect, otherwise you can hardly get your business done if they wrap everything in red tape,” he said.

Recalling the sudden death of two Chinese Church leaders in their 40s last year, he thinks it is necessary to remind clergy to watch out for their health, though he observed that only a small proportion of them are heavy drinkers.

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