Chinese mooncake holiday pastry at center of major anti-corruption drive

(CBS News) China is celebrating the Mid-Autumn Festival Thursday. The holiday falls each year during a full harvest moon. At the heart of the holiday - a tiny pastry. But this year it's at the center of a big anti-corruption drive.

Mooncakes are pastries formed into the shape of a moon, which is meant to symbolize the unity of family during this holiday. Giving the cakes is a tradition that dates back 1,300 years to the Tang Dynasty. But, these days, it's part pastry, part politics.

A chain of stores in northern China expects to sell 27 million mooncakes this holiday. Justin Meng told CBS News this little pastry plays an outsized role during China's Mid-Autumn Festival. Justin said, "It's customary for companies to purchase mooncakes for their employees - for every single employee."

"So at this time of year people are receiving mooncakes from all different sources. You open the door and there's another person with mooncakes?" CBS News' Seth Doane asked.

"Yeah, something like that," Justin said.

In recent years, the mixture of flour, sugar and lard has been transformed from bland to bling. Try mooncakes filled with pricey delicacies like shark fin or others dusted in gold. In fact, some were not just "dusted," they were solid gold.

But when these not-so-humble cakes are delivered in elaborate boxes - sometimes stuffed with cash - they become more bribe than baked good. So this pastry has become a target of an anti-corruption campaign led by China's new president, Xi Jinping. The crackdown is designed to boost the image of the ruling Communist Party. The Central Commission for Discipline Inspection has now banned the use of public money to buy mooncakes.

Justin's girlfriend, Jennifer Ye - whom CBS News met at a Beijing cafe that makes mooncakes - said the mooncake reform could hurt her businessman uncle.

Jennifer said, "He need to buy a lot of those expensive mooncakes to send some political officials to get his business, business opportunity."

Doane asked, "So your uncle would buy these expensive mooncakes - to do business? "

Jennifer replied, "Yeah, to get some business opportunities."

Doane asked, "Will your uncle do that this year?"

"I don't think so," Jennifer said. "They won't take those expensive mooncakes from my uncle because, you know, it's quite sensitive now."

Before the ban, gift boxes at the Beijing store could cost upwards of $1,500. These days, most cost less than $30. But as the mooncake returns to its roots - stuffed with salted duck-egg - it may be more traditional than tasty.

And there's another sign of modern China: Western chain stores have gotten in on the mooncake action. Starbucks has its own version.

Watch Seth Doane's report above.