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Trickle-down economics for Chinese officials

Singapore’s intensely competent, scrupulously uncorrupt, and slightly dictatorial Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has accepted a 36 percent pay cut, bringing his salary down to a still-comfortable $1.7 million a year.  After an embarrassingly close victory in last year’s elections, Lee set up an independent review committee on governmental salaries to check populist anger. And ...

Feng Li/Getty Images
Feng Li/Getty Images

Singapore’s intensely competent, scrupulously uncorrupt, and slightly dictatorial Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has accepted a 36 percent pay cut, bringing his salary down to a still-comfortable $1.7 million a year.  After an embarrassingly close victory in last year’s elections, Lee set up an independent review committee on governmental salaries to check populist anger. And yesterday, the panel announced changes including Lee’s cut, a slightly larger dock for ministers, and a more than 50 percent drop in the salary for the (mostly honorific) office of the presidency. Say what you want about Lee (actually, better not: the country has some of the most fearsome libel laws of any developed nation), he listens to his constituents.

While Lee is likely the highest paid world leader in the world, Chinese president Hu Jintao, leader of the world’s second-largest economy, sits near the other end of the spectrum. If government statistics are to be believed, Hu makes just over $10,000 a year.  Officials at the ministerial level make that same amount, and lower ranking Party apparatchiks can make as little as a few hundred dollars a month.   "While the benefits, like housing, are very good, the salary is low, that’s definite," says Yiyi Lu, a Beijing-based China analyst. Even with benefits, Chinese government salaries encourage corruption by bestowing high power but low salaries on people who have very little transparency over their actions. Whereas in Singapore ministers remain clean in part to keep their seven-figure salaries, in China one always wonders how those officials making, say, $1500 a month can afford those Rolexes.

Isaac Stone Fish is a journalist and senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S-China Relations. He was formerly the Asia editor at Foreign Policy Magazine. Twitter: @isaacstonefish

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