Tea Leaf Nation

Running China on $1,833 a Month

Xi Jinping and other officials just got a raise, but netizens don't think the bumps are enough to curb widespread graft.

GERMANY-CHINA-DIPLOMACY-ECONOMY
Chinese President Xi Jinping stands by national flags at the Schloss Bellevue presidential residency in Berlin on March 28, 2014. Chinese President Xi Jinping begins a landmark visit to fellow export powerhouse Germany Friday, the third leg of his European tour, expected to cement flourishing trade ties and focus on the Crimea crisis. AFP PHOTO / JOHANNES EISELE (Photo credit should read JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images)

It just got slightly less difficult to be a clean Chinese official. State media reported on Jan. 20 that Chinese civil servants had received their first pay raise in ten years, a move that includes a 60 percent bump for President Xi Jinping and the six men who serve with him on the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee. The state-run China Daily said that Xi, who had been making $1,130, will now make about $1,833 per month. Salaries for the lowest level civil servants went from $101 per month to $213 per month. The paper added the move came “after government officials had been leaving their jobs because of low pay,” though it didn’t provide any figures for the alleged exodus. The average monthly wage in Beijing, where Xi serves, was $930 in 2013.

On social media, most seemed to think the raises were long overdue, although many questioned how meaningful the official salary numbers are since they are supplemented by perks, bonuses, and an enormous shadow economy based on graft. Popular Beijing-based blogger and commentator Wuyue Sanren asked his 1.2 million followers on micro-blogging platform Weibo if they could explain to him how so many low-paid civil servants managed to acquire cars and homes. “Maybe I didn’t see the civil servants who are out doing some part-time begging?” he asked. One Beijing entrepreneur wrote on Weibo that he was astounded more government workers weren’t leaving such poorly remunerated jobs. “My dad can raise a pig for a year and get $1,611 for it,” he wrote.

The move was widely seen as an attempt to reduce the appeal of bribery by giving government employees a more livable wage. (The same rationale lies behind Singapore’s famously high paychecks for its ministers, including about $1.7 million a year for the prime minister, over 77 times the $22,008 Xi is set to make annually.) Hong Kong’s Phoenix Television posted a survey asking people whether or not they expected Beijing’s salary boost to curb corruption. Of the more than 220,000 respondents, 29.9 percent thought it would help curb corruption while 70.1 percent said it wouldn’t make a difference. But experts say that anti-corruption efforts in China can’t be truly effective without asset declaration rules forcing officials to reveal homes, cars, and other assets that may have been improperly given to them or acquired through illegal means. The Berlin-based anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International argued in an Oct. 2014 report that pilot programs already requiring officials in part of south China’s Guangdong province to publicly register the houses they own should be expanded nationwide. This would make it much easier to “track officials’ accumulation of assets and check if the salaries they earn are commensurate with their declared wealth,” the report said.

Other netizens, like novelist Tian You, expressed frustration that the move was made with no apparent public consultation. Tian wrote on Weibo that raises for civil servants in some other countries would have been subject to open debate and Congressional approval. “China’s different,” he wrote. “The government releases a document and immediately the civil servants get a raise.” The power of the government to pay itself more seemed to irk many. A news piece about the details of the new scheme on the Sohu news website quickly garnered more than 8,000 comments. The most up-voted response asked when the government was planning to make life more affordable for regular folks. “Even with a civil service staff that is so enormous, they are able to say they will boost salaries and it’s done like that; but what about us ordinary people?”

If Xi’s public pronouncements are any indication, salary has been much on his mind in recent months. In October 2014, Xi delivered a warning to state-owned enterprises about “unreasonably high” compensation for executives. On Jan. 18, the People’s Liberation Army Daily, China’s military mouthpiece, quoted Xi cautioning soldiers that their only acceptable income was their salary. He warned them against taking any earnings from activities in the “grey economy,” a euphemism in this case for graft. In the context of those comments, Xi’s self-granted pay raise risks looking unseemly.

Far from downplaying the news, state media has spilled a good bit of ink over Xi’s salary in recent days. Papers like the China Daily focused on his pay hike as the lead example in their coverage of civil servant raises. Another news item making the rounds: a piece looking at Xi’s salary from 1979 just after he graduated from prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing. Back then, he made what’s now the equivalent of about $8 per month, which would have bought him 64 pounds of pork in 1979 or 2,293 pounds of cabbage (if for some reason, he’d spent the entire amount on one item). State-run publications likely realize that citizens can only get so indignant about an official income still lower than many Chinese corporate middle managers. But they dodged other, touchier subjects, like how Xi could reportedly have sent his daughter to Harvard on his scant earnings?

The New York Times, which has exhaustively documented the family wealth of China’s leader wealth at its own peril, noted that while Xi’s salary may be modest, he has access, via his relatives, to some impressive real estate in Beijing. “When he’s not cooling his heels at the Zhongnanhai leadership compound in central Beijing, he can spend the night at the Xi family home, a grand traditional walled compound in the fashionable Nanlouguxiang neighborhood,” it said. It added that Xi “might find a better deal” at the Guanyuan apartment complex, a posh development whose investors include Xi’s older sister and brother-in-law.

Shujie Leng contributed research.

AFP/Getty Images

 

Alexa Olesen was a foreign correspondent for the Associate Press in Beijing for eight years and has been a reporter for Foreign Policy. She now works for ChinaSix, a New York-based consulting firm.

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