China crab industry feels pinch from graft crackdown

Hairy crabs packed to sell at an aquatic product market in Shanghai on Oct 14, 2014. China's gourmet crab industry has become the latest victim of Communist authorities' two-year corruption crackdown after high-end spirits and luxury cars,
Hairy crabs packed to sell at an aquatic product market in Shanghai on Oct 14, 2014. China's gourmet crab industry has become the latest victim of Communist authorities' two-year corruption crackdown after high-end spirits and luxury cars, as government officials shun the pricey crustacean. -- PHOTO: AFP

SHANGHAI (AFP) - China's gourmet crab industry has become the latest victim of Communist authorities' two-year corruption crackdown after high-end spirits and luxury cars, as government officials shun the pricey crustacean.

The arrival of freshwater "hairy crab" - a delicacy named for the bristles on its claws - on the market every autumn has long been eagerly awaited.

But now its golden roe has lost some lustre as anti-graft and austerity campaigns launched by China's leader Xi Jinping after he came to power in late 2012 show little sign of abating.

China is celebrated as the world's largest luxury market, but its corruption hunt is having unintended consequences across multiple industries, slowing consumption.

Management consultancy Bain & Company predicted Tuesday that luxury spending in China will shrink two percent this year due to "greater controls" and "changing consumption patterns".

Banquet fare such as crabs and expensive liquor are off the menu while the gifting of luxury goods - typically used for bribes or to launder illicit funds - has plunged.

"Consumption (of crabs) by government officials has dropped to almost zero," said Yang Weilong, vice chairman of a China Fisheries Association branch. In some parts of China, hairy crab retail prices have plunged as much as 40 per cent, Mr Yang said, and average prices are now around 120 yuan (S$32) for a 500-gram crustacean.

Demand from officials had fuelled a decade of price rises, but these days sellers can only rely on private customers.

The small green crabs are raised across eastern China, although purists say the best come from the murky waters of a shallow lake near Shanghai called Yangcheng.

"It is important for major crab sellers to adjust their prices to fit general consumers, otherwise they will suffer a great collapse just like the spirit maker Moutai," Mr Yang said.

Kweichow Moutai Co., which dominates the top-end liquor market in China, said in August: "Supply exceeds demand in the spirit sector. The whole industry continues to undergo a deep adjustment in a complex environment."

Its first-half net profit fell slightly to 7.2 billion yuan this year, after posting growth of 13.74 percent for all of 2013.

Luxury makers are trying to adapt, targeting private-sector wealthy individuals.

France's Hermes - known for its handbags and scarves - recently opened a flagship "maison" store in China's commercial capital Shanghai, only its fifth such establishment in the world.

The four-storey shop offers a limited edition crocodile handbag for US$80,000 (S$102,000) and clerks hint that even the elusive Birkin bag might be available to VIP customers.

But the firm's global watch sales fell seven percent year-on-year in the first half, largely due to China, its top timepiece market.

It says other sectors are holding up. "Maybe there is less gifting for others, but there are a lot of people buying for themselves," said CEO Axel Dumas.

Nonetheless executives say a lack of clarity on when the corruption campaign will be reined in is casting uncertainty over the market.

Authorities have snared hundreds of officials in the anti-corruption drive, including high-level "tigers" such as former internal security chief Zhou Yongkang and Liu Tienan, once deputy director of the government's top economic planning agency.

Many companies hope the fallout from the campaigns is only temporary, but in any case China is too big and important to ignore.

More than 114,000 official cars that were of higher specifications than regulations stipulate have been confiscated, the People's Daily, the official mouthpiece of the Communist Party, reported last week.

The country is already the world's largest auto market and its luxury car segment will overtake the United States as the biggest as early as 2016, management consultancy McKinsey has forecast.

US auto giant General Motors is steadily adding models to its top-end Cadillac range and GM China's president Matthew Tsie said: "We're still quite optimistic with regard to overall growth in luxury." But hundreds of crab breeders and traders are expecting losses for the season.

"Since Yangcheng Lake crab is mainly a gift, limits on publicly funded consumption are fatal to sales," said Wang Zhiqiang, who runs a crab company.

"If the anti-corruption campaign continues, everyone will reduce production non-stop... the industry will very quickly go into decline."