China Daily Life

Pic: AP.

There are times when a detail can tell a whole story, and the death of a giant amphibious animal in Guangdong is one such case. It all began on Monday, when the Southern Metropolis Daily, a local Chinese newspaper, published the story of how three of its journalists were beaten by police after they caught officials banqueting on a giant salamander.

The paper says it was tipped off that a group of local officials was about to dine on the endangered amphibian, a specialty in Cantonese cuisine, in a restaurant in Guandong on January 21 and sent two reporters and one photographer to investigate. Once they arrived at the restaurant, the three journalists managed to snoop on 28 diners, including police officials. Their identity was soon discovered and they were beaten, the photographer’s camera was smashed and their phones taken.

The story is so unusual it has left readers flabbergasted – one of the officials involved even said, in a rather mafia-like style: “In my territory, it is my treat.” But it also works as a pocket-sized compendium of some of the issues faced by contemporary China, beginning with the main course on the menu: the giant salamander – known to specialists as andrias davidianus – is the largest amphibious animal on the planet, and is highly endangered.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the giant salamander “was once reasonably common but has declined catastrophically over the last 30 years, principally due to over-exploitation, and it is now very rare, with few surviving populations known.” In China, says the  IUCN, the species is included among the Class II major protected wildlife species.

At a moment when many Chinese citizens are becoming increasingly sensitive dwindling wildlife and authorities are trying to somehow protect the environment, the news comes as a powerful reminder that old ways die hard.

The banquet, which reportedly cost $1,000, also flies in the face of a recent crackdown on extravagance by the Chinese government. In the very first months of his presidency Xi Jinping intervened to curb excessive spending by public servants: parties, lavish gifts, gargantuan banquets and pretty much all that used to be common among officials quickly became problematic.

The public reacted positively to the campaign, but the crackdown went so far that it had an impact on the economy, according to Chinese media. In August 2014 shark fins prices – shark fins being an expensive treat usually regarded as a luxury – declined by almost 50 percent as compared to the same period in 2013, while sales were down by 80 percent in Guangzhou’s market.

In an interview with Bloomberg, Shen Jianguang, chief Asia economist at Mizuho Securities Asia Ltd. in Hong Kong, argued that “the anti-corruption action by Xi is creating unprecedented phenomena, including an absolute fall in high-end restaurant sales.”

Finally, another important part of the story is the role played by Chinese media, who exposed local officials and won their battle: the trio of journalists was attacked, sure, but they were eventually able to publish and were protected by authorities, who turned against the police forces. So far 14 policemen have been suspended and on Tuesday a police chief in Shenzhen was put under investigation. This time around, scribes and salamanders alike have been avenged.