Bribery in China and the Red Envelope: Why They are Normal

Bribery from a Western perspective contains a negative connotation as it does in most cultures including China, yet there are many in the nation that see it as the norm, at least in terms of conducting business.

Bribery isn’t necessarily done to cut corners in China. It is done out of respect to let the person(s) you are cooperating with know that you are willing to go the extra mile to satisfy them as well as make them feel special for having accepted you into some kind of an agreement.

The person who wants to gain something is of course the person doing the bribing and not the other way around. And it is precisely that they want something many Chinese feel they should be treated preferentially aside from details explained in a written or verbal agreement. Sticking to the agreement only means that you are only willing to go as far as the guidelines say, which to Chinese is fine, but doesn’t leave the best of all impressions.

It’s kind of like the guy at work that does just enough to get by at work. There is nothing wrong with the way the guy operates but if it came time for a boss to choose that guy or the one who goes the extra mile then who do you think the boss will choose?

For the Chinese, the guy who goes the extra mile in conducting business affairs is the one does the bribing, at least that’s what the case is quite often. It’s not to say Chinese don’t value hard work from employees, as that as a different scenario. Employees are expected to work hard in order to keep their job but if someone were to try and cooperate with a company to benefit in some way then a bribe or a “red envelope” hongbao with money inside is often the appropriate way to secure proper relations.

The red envelope is also used in very common ways that almost seem to border the lines of bribery. In a school setting, it is quite often that parents will give their children’s teachers a red envelope out of respect, but it really depends on how it is given. For example, during a holiday period many Chinese give out red envelopes to one another if they are relatives or in some cases close friends as a cultural greeting. When it comes to the teacher relationship, if the student is close with the teacher in that the teacher perhaps at a college level goes the extra mile to teach that student then it is ok to give a red envelope as a sign of respect. This often happens with teachers in the arts in particular but is still common in other subjects.

If, however, a student gives a teacher without any kind of explanation and on terms that may seem surprising to a teacher then the teacher may consider it to be a form of persuasion. Or perhaps the teacher wouldn’t care but if authorities in the school found out, then both the teacher and student could get in trouble. Giving a red envelope and asking for a favor meanwhile is flat-out bribery.

In the West giving such an envelope in any circumstance outside of giving it to a relative during a holiday period would probably be considered bribery. Westerners have a hard time accepting Chinese giving each other gifts if they are monetary wise but yet are fine with other gifts even if they have monetary value. How and where you draw the line is hard to tell at times, but this is at large the culture at which bribery is thought of and extends from in many ways, making politeness and bribery seem like next-door neighbors in China in many ways.

If money is not involved as bribery then favors and entertainment are often the next step as to avoid any speculation. For example, a businessman may say that if you do XXX for me then I will do XXX for you. Whether those XXXs are legal or not depends on the circumstances and it could be that in order to get such arrangements made that other favors and or “bribes” are being conducted, thus intensifying the need for other briberies to be made. It’s a cycle that in some ways perpetuates itself, yet the Chinese don’t seem to mind it, at least not at the business level where there are often many benefits from the bribery such as high cash amounts.

This is not to justify bribery in China, as it often leads to companies cutting corners that later result in environmental and social problems but rather to give insight as to how things are done at the basic level even when dealing with opening a small business.

Taiwanese often complain that even if they go to China to open a small business in a commercial district that they have to pay off several people. And why is that? The business doesn’t want to do anything illegal and in this case was only attempting to start a study abroad center, but from the Chinese standpoint there mentality is “I am allowing you to accept this rental space in a good area where potential profits can be made. I am doing a favor for you, and therefore expect one in return.” Therefore, to make a good impression and play by their rule in a legal, yet ostensibly unconventional manner, Taiwanese just like everyone else looking to get settled in China needs to hand over that red envelope to seal the deal, just like how red stamps are used in sealing the deal in Chinese business agreements in the formal way.

No One Gets Rich in China Alone

The idea that getting rich by yourself in China is highly unlikely in China’s modern society as competition is high and facilities costs in most cities are now through the roof. When China started to industrialize throughout the 70s and 80s there was low competition despite high populations due to the disparity in education between classes. If you were slightly educated and had an idea, you were capable of getting low-interest loans to start your own factory and make a name for yourself. Many of the baby boomers in China fell under this category as they did in Taiwan and if you compared the amount of money they had to borrow from banks during those time periods compared to now coupled with much lower competition, the comparison almost wants make you want to cry as it would be virtually impossible for most people today to get a loan, start a factory and pay it back if it were to fail, yet alone succeed.

What this means in China’s modern context is that if you want to work your way up you will be highly reliable on cooperation with others as well as the relationships or guanxi you have made. Everyone in China knows how important this is and again, if you consider which person is going to receive preferential treatment from someone in a business agreement, it definitely will be the one willing to go the extra mile.

How To Bribe in China

For people looking to bribe to achieve some sort of illegal behavior the rest of this information is not for you. For those who find themselves in such a scenario like the guy trying to open a study abroad center, you may be wondering then in what way is the red envelope given?

Most of the time the red envelope is given as an actual physical item if the amount is enough to fit inside. For larger amounts, it is usually added on to an existing business agreement through a bank transfer. Inevitably the Chinese are expecting such an envelope, but to be polite and make it seem like they are not desperate and that you are good hearted, give them the envelope with a feeling of gratitude that is also met with a smile, as if you feel like you are happy to do that for them (when in fact you are thinking to yourself “I can’t believe I am doing this.”) The Chinese will pretend to look surprised and smile back along, most likely avoiding a “thank you” as this will seem like they are accepting outside of the ordinary, so don’t be offended. If it’s a transfer, make sure to send a letter or some kind of message that corresponds with the transfer stating you were happy to do business and that this is a token of your appreciation.

Chinese overall know exactly what is going on in such situations but they don’t like to be upfront about it in such obvious ways even though they are so upfront and uncomfortably direct about many other things. It’s part of their culture and to analyze it any further would be tiring just as it would be to analyze a lot of the cultural nuances found all over the world in different societies. To deny it can be smart and safe in some cases, but in others unfortunate.

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