On Aug. 20, U.S. ice cream giant Haagen-Dazs posted an advertisement on its Chinese social media feed letting customers know how easy it could be to send ice cream mooncakes for the upcoming harvest festival. “The most trendy, most ‘in’ way to send gifts for the Mid-Autumn Festival is here!” it said. With a few quick clicks, customers could send boxes of green tea, chocolate, or other flavored ice cream cakes to “clients, friends, and relatives” via the hugely popular WeChat messaging app. The service is part of China’s booming digital gift-giving trend. But now such practices are drawing scrutiny from the country’s anti-corruption watchdogs, who say that some Communist Party cadres are abusing the technology.

Huang Shuxian, the deputy head of China’s anti-graft commission, said in a Sept. 4 interview that the government was poised to ferret out online gift-giving as part of an ongoing campaign against waste and extravagance launched in October 2013. The central government has ordered public funds not be used for lavish banquets, luxury travel, or even traditional holiday gifts like mooncakes. Some party cadres have been trying to make petty graft more discrete by sending or receiving electronic gift cards or vouchers and digital “red envelopes” of cash via WeChat, Huang said, adding that “we will carefully screen, find and investigate” the practice. A Sept. 4 headline on state-run Xinhua news service trumpets early success: “China luxury ban cools mooncake fever.”

Online gifting is the latest target in an ongoing anti-corruption campaign launched by President Xi Jinping following his ascension to the top party post in November 2012. Though the graft campaign has teeth and has targeted some high-profile officials — including former Politburo Standing Committee member Zhou Yongkang — the austerity push has come in for some light-hearted ribbing online. One commentator on Sina Weibo, a Chinese social media site, posted a piece of short fiction with an accompanying cartoon about a wife who finds her husband had decline to put up the usual Mid-Autumn idols on either side of their front door. Instead, he posted a list of no-no’s in the government’s “Four Winds” campaign against bureaucracy, formalism, hedonism, and waste. “This will guarantee our peace,” the husband said. “We’ll post one every year from now on.” The cartoon showed a visitor laden with gift bags stopping short in front of the couple’s door.

Shenzhen-based Tencent Holdings launched its WeChat red envelope platform in January this year to allow users to send cash from their bank accounts via mobile phone. (Individual transactions are capped at $33, but users can send multiple envelopes.) It was a hit: The company told Xinhua in February that the service attracted 5 million users in two days, and that some 20 million red envelopes had been shared over the Lunar New Year festival, the most important holiday on the Chinese calendar. Twenty-five-year-old Yang Yi, a government employee in Beijing, boasted to the state-run China Daily newspaper in February that she had received $200 in red envelopes during the holiday. “It was like a game,” she said.

Huang’s warning against such red envelopes for officials is timely, coming just as China’s autumn gift-giving season shifts into high gear in the weeks between Mid-Autumn Festival, celebrated on Sept. 8 this year, and National Day on Oct. 1. While ordinary citizens can still share mooncakes and red envelopes, officials caught giving or receiving such gifts now face the genuine possibility of punishment.

The government has even set up a tip hotline so the public can report officials who use public funds to buy mooncakes. The campaign is taking a toll on the confectionary business. In Guangdong province’s Wuchuan city, known as China’s “mooncake capital,” some companies have cut production by half and a few factories have been forced to close, the China Daily reported.

Autumn is also back-to-school season, which brings its own obligations. While teachers in other countries sometimes receive gifts from parents at year’s end, many parents in China give teachers presents or even packets of cash at the start of the school term to help ensure their child gets extra attention in class throughout the school year. The practice is widespread. On Weibo, one mother from Xi’an city in China’s inland Shaanxi province, wrote that a standard “cash gift” at their primary school was $5,000, about twice the average annual income for an urban Chinese family. In lieu of a stack of cash, some are apparently opting for discrete digital red envelopes or gift cards, prompting the Ministry of Education to issue a warning notice in August. It alerted education departments nationwide that such online gift-giving would be rooted out and investigated. It also encouraged the public to report any cases to the government. On Weibo, users responded with incredulity. One wrote: “Your child is in their hands being taught by them — who would dare to report them?” But the government’s anti-corruption campaign has already begun to change the status quo among cadres; it would be premature to bet against its expansion. The “game,” as Yang called it, is afoot.

By ALEXA OLESEN September 8, 2014 in Tea Leaf Nation