‘Himalayan Viagra’ the focus of China’s latest anti-corruption campaign

William Zheng
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‘Himalayan Viagra’ the focus of China’s latest anti-corruption campaign

Anti-corruption authorities in northwest China have launched a campaign to crack down on the use of a valuable fungus, sometimes known as “Himalayan Viagra”, to bribe officials.

Cordyceps is a fungus that lives on certain caterpillars found in mountainous regions of China. Highly prized by practitioners and devotees of traditional Chinese medicine, it is mostly used to treat kidney disorders and male sexual problems, and to improve athletic performance.

While there is little scientific evidence to support any of those claims, the fungus is more valuable than gold. Kam Yong Lee, who has been selling cordyceps in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong for the past 20 years, said the current price of the fungus was HK$370 (US$47) per gram, or about HK$40 a gram more expensive than the precious metal.

“In the good old days, the price of top grade cordyceps was over HK$40,000 a tael, or more than HK$1,000 per gram,” he said.

The fungus’ high price and ease of portability has made it a popular currency among corrupt officials over the years, but that could be about to change.

On March 18, China’s disciplinary watchdog, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, said in an online statement that its branch in Qinghai province had begun a three-month crackdown on corruption cases involving cordyceps.

In the good old days, the price of top grade cordyceps was over HK$40,000 a tael, or more than HK$1,000 per gram.

Vendor Kam Yong Lee

The most well-known species of the fungus is found in the Chinese provinces of Qinghai, Sichuan, Yunnan and Gansu, and in the Tibet autonomous region. The government of Qinghai regards it as something of a local speciality.

According to the statement, anti-corruption teams have begun targeting officials who use public funds to buy cordyceps and those who give or receive it as a bribe to further their personal or business interests.

The crackdown in Qinghai is not the first to target cordyceps. A documentary broadcast by CCTV in 2017 highlighted the case of Zhong Shijian, a former deputy secretary of the Guangdong Provincial Discipline Inspection Commission, who in 2015 was found with more than 200kg (440lbs) of the fungus in his home. At today’s prices, the haul would have been worth about US$9.4 million.

In court, Zhong was found guilty of giving and accepting bribes and sentenced to 15½ years in prison.

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Also in 2017, Liang Jianxin, a former party chief of the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration in Dongguan, Guangdong province, was sentenced to five years in prison for accepting bribes totalling 3.5 million yuan (US$520,000).

According to his testimony, Liang said he spent much of the money on cordyceps, which he used to treat his high blood pressure and diabetes caused by excessive drinking.

In May 2017, Tong Min, a former director of the China Food and Drug Administration was sentenced to 10 years in prison for accepting bribes for helping dealers secure licences to sell cordyceps.

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