Discount That China’s Salary Classes Can Stomach

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The average wage slave in Shanghai may find it harder than ever to get a job or pay the rent, but when it comes to cheap grub, the Communist party is there for them.

Almost 200 eateries in the posh Jing'an district of Shanghai – ranging from upmarket restaurants and five-star hotels to even convenience stores – have begun offering discounted lunches for office workers. Another Shanghai district is even treating stressed-out salarymen to free afternoon teas. It seems Mao Zedong's "iron rice bowl" (guaranteed lifetime employment) has morphed into more of an iron tea cup.

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The Jing'an government gives the impression that high-end eateries are clamoring to be included in the lunch program. Maybe they are: these are hard times for top-end dining spots, since Beijing decreed a new era of abstemiousness.

But they are hardly going to be able to use income from the lunches, which are mostly sold at or below cost, to make up for the money they have lost on government galas; 200 wage slaves might generate only as much lunch revenue as a single table of government revelers of yore. It is doubtless smart politics to give the government what it wants in the matter of white-collar nutrition. But it can only be smart economics if the typist who spends Rmb15 ($2.45) for a mostly mediocre lunch is willing to come back and spent Rmb150 at the same restaurant for dinner.

The five-star JC Mandarin Hotel, on Nanjing West Road, Shanghai's ritziest street, says the government asked it to become involved, and it was happy to do so – in the spirit of community service. So last month a corner of the luxury hotel's lobby was turned into a worker canteen, serving daily (at cost) a salaryman set lunch for Rmb38, discounted from the regular Rmb88, to 70 to 100 staff from nearby office buildings. (Most "white-collar lunches" cost between Rmb10 and Rmb30, but luxury hotels get to charge up to Rmb100.)

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Further down Nanjing Road, a queue forms by 11.30am every day for the Rmb15 worker set lunch at Shanghai Min, one of the city's oldest dining chains. "It's economical, clean, the service is good, and there is some fruit with each meal," says Feng Yuhao, a film-maker who works locally. "The only disadvantage is it's too crowded, the queue takes 10 to 15 minutes." The menu could have come straight from Xi Jinping: "four dishes and a soup", the new standard for government dining.

At the opposite end of the road is the even more modest "community canteen" where I often get my own four dishes and a soup at lunchtime. Like the rest of the motley crew of office workers and pensioners who patronize that refectory, I show up with my own saucepan or Tupperware container, which gets loaded to the brim with meat, fish, rice and stinky tofu for as little as Rmb5-8 a meal. Conversation at the cramped tables often revolves around how happy we all are that the Nanny provides such cheap fare, so close to our homes or offices. (I tend to be more grateful on days when stinky tofu is left off the menu.)

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But it's not quite the iron rice bowl that it sounds: Jing'an government officials say that of the district's 250,000 white-collar workers – up from 100,000 when the project started in 2007 – 70 per cent eat a meal from the scheme regularly. But the goal is not just to fill their hard-working bellies: it helps Jing'an compete with second- and third-tier cities trying to lure investment away from Shanghai. (Lunch is cheap in those places, even without the party's help.) And Nanny is happy when people spend money: since boosting consumption is her plan for saving the Chinese economy.

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Given the popularity of the lunch scheme, Jing'an has now started including afternoon tea in some venues. And another Shanghai district, Hongkou, last month started offering free afternoon tea as a lure to get office workers to talk to one another, and break down that salaryman isolation. The organisers say they may add lectures on health, nutrition, love and marriage too.

Where will it end? Last week President Xi followed up his call for government food-and-drink frugality with a recommendation that cadres "look in the mirror, tidy your attire and take a bath" (among other things). Will five-star hotels start offering rooms by the hour to anyone with a party membership card who wants to ablute during working hours?

Maybe that explains the results from a Pew Research Center survey that found 88 per cent of Chinese feel good about their economy.