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.