Corruption: The Small Potatoes

Posted: August 25, 2012 in Chinese Culture
Tags: ,

On this blog I often write about the systematic nature of corruption in China and how it’s become something that people now just take for granted. To be clear, the lion’s share of the responsibility lies with the system. But to be fair, there are certain aspects of Chinese culture that make corruption much easier. And they’re unlikely to disappear anytime soon, even with significant reform.

Let’s say for instance that Mr. Li runs a widget factory. One day he receives an invitation to the wedding of Mr. Guo’s daughter. “How nice,” you might think. Mr. Li hardly knows Mr. Guo and he’s never met the daughter. But Mr. Li isn’t too pleased. It so happens that Mr. Guo is one of the official regulators responsible for Mr. Li’s factory.

When he arrives at the wedding, Mr. Li brings a hongbao (red envelope) full of cash, as is the custom at Chinese weddings. Normally for a casual acquaintance Like Mr. Guo’s daughter, the amount could be as low as 100-200 yuan ($16-$31). If it were a close friend, several hundred. If it were immediate family, maybe one or two thousand.

But Mr. Li’s hongbao contains 10,000 yuan, maybe more. When he enters the wedding hall he hands it off to someone specially designated to collect them along with dozens of other guests doing the same. Later, after the ceremony, Mr. Guo comes to Mr. Li’s table, gives him a cheery drunken pat on the back and toasts him. Mr. Li’s factory continues to churn out widgets without problem – regardless of what regulations he might be breaking. Not a single word was explicitly spoken about the transaction that just occurred.

Nobody besides Mr. Li and the Guo family will ever know how much was in the hongbao. Even if they did, what could they do? It was a simply a “wedding gift” that Mr. Guo never even asked for.

Perhaps it wasn’t his daughter’s wedding. Maybe Mr. Guo had a party celebrating the hundredth day since his nephew was born, or a birthday party for his mother.  And perhaps it wasn’t so high level. Maybe Mr. Li just runs a small shop and instead of giving Mr. Guo a pile of cash, it was a 500 yuan pack of cigarettes (which Mr. Guo won’t actually smoke, but use later as a gift for his superiors).

Whatever the “special occasion” and whatever the amount involved, from the moment Mr. Guo made the announcement and Mr. Li received it, both sides knew what it was about.

When we think of corruption in China we tend to think of handing over huge briefcases of cash in tense, shady backroom deals. But this is what’s far more common and far harder to do anything about. As much as genuine systematic reform would accomplish in stamping out the major corruption cases, these low-level “understandings” are much more engrained in the culture and will take much longer to get rid of.

  1. Godfree says:

    Bravo! A simple, much-needed explanation of what the Chinese government is up against. Their emphasis upon eliminating it at the top and working ther way down the herarchy seems the most (cost-) effective approach, judging by results and by the ligh level of trust (85%+) the Chinese peeople place in them.
    Our approach–honest federal and State employees and thoroughly corrupt elected officials–has predictable (and now visible) long-term negative consequences for the country’s wellbeing.

    • taichicard says:

      I disagree with this scenario you created in this blog. If Mr. Li hardly knows Mr. Gao in person and not related to any of her important in-laws, it is unlikely he be invited to her wedding at all. There are more festive occasions to give hongbao, a modern-day gift card, to relations and business-like connections than a unrelated wedding. The un-relation causes suspicion among people regardless the amount of money in the card. If it so happens blatantly, Mr. Gao must have been a corrupted officer in plain sight. That makes him an easy target to eliminate for his opponents in the office at a later time.

  2. customer-receipt says:

    This exchange (whether realistic or not) was implicitly attributed to “Chinese culture,” but no evidence was provided to support the argument that culture is to blame. “Godfree” is probably a 50 cent member, because the obvious conclusion is that the government ie The Party is to blame for this. Gao is the regulator. the communist Party has no check on its control and power, so corruption reigns. This example doesn’t disrupt this analysis, whatever blathering the 50 cent brigade comes up with.

  3. foarp says:

    @Taichicard – Actually, exactly the scenario that Eric describes can and does happen.

    @Godfree – The problem here is that central government is just as corrupt as local government, because officials in central government start out in local government. A simple examination of the wealth of the families of the present politburo is enough to give the lie to the idea that corruption is local in nature, the Bo Xilai affair shows the same. Very simply, the Politburo has no interest in eliminating corruption because they are its biggest beneficiaries.

    Let me note, again, that the Pew polls taken in China should be taken with a big grain of salt. Pew is not permitted to ask about levels of approval of the government or the party – instead they ask about the direction of the country. Pew is permitted to survey a sample representing only a portion of the urban population, not a representative sample of the national population.

  4. xiongsenlei says:

    Nice and superficial. Gives a stereotypical example of corruption in China without providing any analysis or proof of its “systematic” [sic] nature. I’m not saying corruption doesn’t exist here; in fact, corruption is perhaps the biggest obstacle China faces in its quest for legitimacy as a first-world nation. It’s just that one expects more from a blogger passing himself as a 中国通.

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