Serve the People (More Booze)

Mao didn’t say it, but he might as well have: serve the people more booze.

In late 1973, a trio of central ministries in Beijing decided that the country needed to ramp up production of the stuff that burns, baijiu, China’s treasured national liquor.

Too much paper money was apparently in circulation in China in 1973 and the country was wrestling with inflationary pressures. The central government wanted to reel some of that cash back in from consumers, and they concocted all sorts of schemes to do so. They lived by the slogan: “Let the market thrive while bringing currency out of circulation.” (繁荣市场,回笼货币)

With alcohol, the government had plans to soak up loads of cash: if they loaned out 2,500,000 tons of grain, distillers could produce 100,000 tons of baijiu worth an astonishing 340,000,000 yuan.

Putting this plan into action, China’s government distributed extra grain rations to provinces across the country. Everything was then sent further down the chain to baijiu distillers. Based on grain allocations, each province was given a different production quota for baijiu. The fruits of the campaign—that is, the liquor—were to be handed over to China’s commerce bureau for distribution across the country and sale on the marketplace.

The central government was a bit worried that local stakeholders, once flush with extra grain, would simply put it up for sale or “use it for something else.” Distillers were also forbidden from using less grain in their brews than normal recipes called for and pocketing whatever was leftover. (Wishful thinking–grain distributors and distillers did all of these things and more in order to get something out of the campaign for themselves.)

On the other hand, the government did encourage brewers to use “substitute” ingredients whenever possible in order to stretch the grain a little bit further and produce even more baijiu. One wonders what fillers people ended up ingesting.

Wise to what would sell best on the market, the government instructed producers to bottle and package the baijiu. After all, “loose” (散装) alcohol could not travel as far in the marketplace and it could not net as much money, even from local buyers.

The campaign could be stretched even further if distillers recycled the spent grains and used them as pig fodder. “Advance the development of pork on the hoof,” one slogan advocated, by donating the leftover mash to state-run farms.

The campaign to make and sell more baijiu continued into 1974 and 1975. By this time, the campaign “to criticize Lin Biao and Confucius” was in full swing. As Matt Wills observed in a different context, the 1974 directive concerning baijiu production was essentially the same as the directive from 1973—only now the opening paragraph said that making baijiu was also about politics.

The campaign produced results in ways the government initially did not really consider: it was apparently wildly popular among ordinary people. “The responses from the masses were very good,” described a 1974 directive, “especially in the pits [that is, mines] and in forests,” where workers saw fully stocked shelves of baijiu in the stores as a demonstration of Mao Zedong’s goodwill towards the people.

Serving the people became an even more important objective in 1975. The Ministries of Light Industry and Commerce announced that the campaign was intended to “furnish the market [with baijiu],” especially the places that needed it most: “industrial, mining, forestry, husbandry, and fisheries areas, ethnic areas, and areas in which the supply of alcohol is tight.”

When the campaign to distill more baijiu began in 1973, it was presented as a “special temporary measure.” Two years later, this bridge-gap policy was still in full effect and everyone, from bureaucrats to farmers, was busy seeing it through to the end.

Drinks probably in hand, no one complained.

All of the information and quotes above were derived from the Shanghai Municipal Archives (SMA), B135-4-647 and B135-4-738.


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