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Hot pot hubbub reflects troubling views on abuse
By Doug Young

AS someone who has followed financial markets for years, I can say with authority that a daily stock market move of more than 1.5 percent is quite rare and most often happens when there’s big news.

The last time we saw frequent movements bigger than that was during the global financial crisis of 2008, when it became almost surreal how often global stock markets would occasionally rise but more often fall by 3 percent or more.

Fast forward to present-day China, where the big swings have returned and changes of 3 percent or more have become quite common in our daily stock market reports. One restaurant owner in Pudong thought he was pretty smart as he created a promotion tied to stock market moves, offering different discounts depending on the size of the market’s rise or fall that day.

But even the owner of the Tongluwan hot pot restaurant didn’t anticipate how wildly the markets might swing, which is probably why he didn’t worry too much when he decided a rise or fall of more than 5 percent would entitle everyone to dine for free.

Market watchers will know that the market finally recorded one such movement with a 6.5 percent plunge late last month, resulting in a chaotic scene at the restaurant.

I don’t have much sympathy for this particular owner, since I’m sure he’s gained lots of new business from the hundreds of local diners who made special trips to Tongluwan to save a few yuan each day.

But more revealing were some of the comments and behavior of people who visited the restaurant on the day of the plunge, reflecting the unusual efforts and inconvenience that many were willing to endure just to get a free meal worth perhaps up to 100 yuan (US$16).

More broadly speaking, this kind of story seems to reflect a bigger mentality that sees many people seize on any opportunity they can find to profit from other people’s losses.

I’m certainly not a fan of slogans and buzzwords, but whoever invented the term “win-win” to describe certain situations where everyone benefits would have difficulty selling the concept to this group of people in China.

Doomsday for Tongluwan came on May 28, when the Shanghai stock market slid 6.5 percent, its worst daily performance since another steep drop at the beginning of the year.

The sell-off may have dampened investor enthusiasm for stocks, but it had the opposite effect on their appetite for a bargain.

After the sell-off, the restaurant was overwhelmed when hundreds of people appeared at its doors and embarked on a feeding frenzy that reportedly cost it around 50,000 yuan.

No one seemed to mind the long waits, and one diner was so proud of his “accomplishment” that he posted a photo of his bill online showing how he had paid just 42 yuan for a meal that normally should have cost 432 yuan.

Getting a free meal

Apparently he could have dined for free, but decided to splurge and pay for drinks that weren’t included in the promotion.

As I’ve already said, I don’t have much sympathy for this restaurant owner, since he’s probably profited hugely from all the publicity despite his losses that day.

But I do personally get puzzled at how excited people got at the prospect of getting a free meal and forcing the restaurant owner to take a loss.

After all, many of those people probably would have gotten a 20-yuan bowl of noodles or other quick and inexpensive food for their meal if the stock market hadn’t plunged, meaning they really only saved 20 yuan each by seizing on the promotion.

At the same time, they also had to deal with many inconveniences, including travel to the restaurant, long waits to get inside and get their food, and dining conditions that were probably crowded and noisy.

At the end of the day I still don’t like the expression win-win, as it sounds too jargony. But there’s certainly nothing wrong with the idea that two people can benefit from a transaction, which is what happens every time someone eats at a restaurant or buys something from a store.

The consumer gets something he wants, and the shop owner gets a profit from the transaction.

The win-lose formula seems far more negative and opportunistic, and is ultimately a recipe for failure for restaurants, companies and individuals that consistently end up on the losing side of the equation.

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