HONG KONG (NYTIMES) – The new guy did not drink.
During a company dinner in Beijing last Thursday (Aug 20), his boss at Xiamen International Bank demanded that he order an alcoholic beverage. When he refused, he said, another executive slapped him.
It was the slap heard around the country, prompting broad reflection on a professional drinking culture in China that rewards excessive drinking and alienates those who do not imbibe.
The employee recounted his experience on WeChat, a Chinese messaging app. But the episode really took off on social media when the bank apologised on Monday to the employee, whom it identified only by his last name, Yang.
Screenshots of Yang’s account, alongside the bank’s response, went viral, generating thousands of comments on Weibo, the Chinese microblogging platform.
“If certain ‘cultures’ or ‘rituals’ come at the expense of health and mortality, can you still call it ‘culture’?” Dr Xu Chao, a medical doctor based in Shandong Province, wrote in a widely shared blog post after the episode went public.
In a statement that verified the broad strokes of Yang’s account, the bank said that two directors had engaged in verbal and physical acts of misconduct while intoxicated at a private dinner, causing disturbance and harm to Yang.
The bank said it had deducted some of the pay of the two directors, from its Beijing branch, and had issued warnings to both for “drunken misconduct”.
Yang’s boss, identified only by his surname, Dong, will not receive a performance-based bonus for six months, the bank added, and the branch manager will not receive a bonus for three months.
Around the world, alcohol has long been seen as a way for workers to bond, as a catalyst for business deals and as a vital lubricant for professional connections.
In South Korea, a younger generation of professionals has pushed back against late-night project discussions in bars, and the government has led a campaign against overtime culture.
Since the 1990s, alcohol consumption has increased by 70 per cent in China, according to a study published in The Lancet in 2019. On average, Chinese residents drank seven litres of alcohol, the study found, while Americans drank 10 litres.
But the study predicted that China’s per capita alcohol consumption would surpass American consumption by 2030.
To clamp down on opulent banquets paid for with taxpayer money, China’s top leader Xi Jinping banned alcohol at military functions after he came to power in 2012. In 2013, he also introduced a national guideline prohibiting expensive liquors at events held by local governments and state enterprises.
Though the bans resulted in a drop in liquor sales, some officials kept drinking together in secret. State news media reported that 20 officials were punished in Yunnan Province after binge-drinking at a government function in September 2017. A county official in Guangxi Province died of alcohol poisoning in April 2017 after celebrating his first day on the job with colleagues. Seven officials who had drunk with him were fired.
Efforts to contact Yang were not successful. But he wrote that the dinner banquet, held at a luxury hotel in the capital, had destroyed his illusions about the finance industry.
In the message he posted in a group chat last Friday, he said he had sensed that his abstinence would become an issue. He had alerted his boss before the banquet that he did not drink for personal reasons. But the boss still pressed him to swap his beverage for an alcoholic one.
Yang wrote that he apologised, but did not give in.
Then, he said, another director approached him with an expletive-laden rant for rejecting an offer of alcohol from a superior and smacked him on the cheek. As he left the banquet hall, he said, his new colleagues erupted in jeers.
Some Internet users in China praised his firm stance and warned against the risks of succumbing to pressure. But the pressure to drink, and the slap, sent him in search of answers.
On the morning after the dinner, in a 114-person group chat for new hires, Yang asked recruiters whether alcohol was part of the job.
“If I don’t drink alcohol, is that not in keeping with the company’s requirements?” he asked. “Does my experience exceed the pressure I should have borne professionally?”
Mr Yang Wenzhan, a lawyer in Beijing who is not related to the bank employee, wrote in a blog post Monday: “If you say you don’t want to drink, that can provoke some people. But if you give in and say you’ll drink a little, then you’ve surrendered your line of defence.
“Afterwards, when you say you’ve had enough, that will offend people.”
But the lawyer, who is abstinent, said he had never been coerced into drinking against his will. Many social crowds are formed based on drinking habits, he noted, and dinner banquets can be divided into two tables: one for those who love to drink and another for those who do so moderately or not at all.
“If you can drink and make professional connections, that will help,” he wrote. “But if you don’t have this ability, you can still make a good lawyer.”
Banquets can be an especially intimidating environment for young working women in China, who are often seated next to older executives and are expected to laugh at their jokes while being plied with alcohol, experts say.
Some employees have dealt with the pressure to drink by resorting to discreet tricks, like pouring one’s drink on the floor.
For better or worse, drunkenness is the aim of dinner banquets in China, novelist Yan Ge wrote in a New York Times Op-Ed article in November.
“When it goes wrong, it can be ugly: Fights can break out; women might be abused for sport,” she wrote. “But when it goes right, mistakes are forgiven; the diners perspire, devour, quaff and sing together, and then, only then, will business be done.”
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