Party’s over for Chinese bureaucrats

Foreign PolicyJanuary 13, 2014 

— On Jan. 31, China will celebrate the first day of the year of the horse. Perhaps it should also be the year of the skinflint.

The results of a survey by respected liberal newspaper Beijing News, released last week, suggest that an ongoing crackdown on official corruption has fundamentally altered the lives of Chinese bureaucrats, who are generally resented for enjoying what the populace still reckons to be a perk-packed, graft-laden, booze-and-shark-fin-soup-filled existence. The clampdown, which began in January of last year, has been ambitious: Directives released by the ruling Communist Party have included prohibitions on using public funds to purchase fireworks or print greeting cards, while a December 2013 rule even orders officials not to smoke in public. Somewhat surprisingly, they’ve been effective: Of the 100 public servants surveyed by the newspaper, a group hailing from different geographic areas and different stations in the Communist hierarchy, 96 percent said they felt the strictures were “truly serious.”

The new rules appear to have hit cadres’ pocketbooks the hardest. Among those surveyed, 92 percent said their “income from outside of work” fell over the past year. Some of this income likely includes cigarettes, alcohol, and store cards – 79 percent of respondents said they had received gifts in years past, but took nothing in 2013. Life’s no easier for those on the giving side, who used to lean on a grey economy of nonperishable goods in lieu of cash to grease the proverbial skids. An anonymous “public relations” employee at a Beijing commercial bank told the paper that before 2013, she would visit the homes of state-owned company managers and hand them 2,000 RMB (roughly $330) gift cards “every time,” totaling over $1,600 per person per year. But in 2013, the paper writes, she found herself routinely turned away. “I used to think we had long-running friendships … but I’ve discovered that wasn’t the case.”

It’s likely, of course, that respondents wary of exposure didn’t share their true feelings, even in an anonymous survey with a reputable outlet. But some cadres did not flinch from depicting past excesses, sounding almost relieved to be free of the demands they entailed. One anonymous official, whom the Beijing News called Xu, said it was “getting worse and worse” to be a bureaucrat, with regulation “increasingly tight.” Xu described how a given week used to include about four nights of alcohol-soaked banqueting, enough to make mincemeat of Xu’s liver. Now that Xu often goes home after work to be with family, that organ, he says, “is slowly recovering.”

Another pseudonymous government worker, Chen, described co-workers as deeply fearful of even the appearance of anything that could land them in party disciplinarians’ crosshairs. That includes Chen, who now abjures the once-ubiquitous gift card and finds life “simpler” now. But “simple is fine,” Chen continued; “at least I feel at ease.”

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