Party Foul

Being a Chinese bureaucrat isn't as fun as it used to be.

Getty Images
Getty Images
Getty Images

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 Jan. 9, 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."

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 Jan. 9, 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."

David Wertime is a senior editor at Foreign Policy, where he manages its China section, Tea Leaf Nation. In 2011, he co-founded Tea Leaf Nation as a private company translating and analyzing Chinese social media, which the FP Group acquired in September 2013. David has since created two new miniseries and launched FP’s Chinese-language service. His culture-bridging work has been profiled in books including The Athena Doctrine and Digital Cosmopolitans and magazines including Psychology Today. David frequently discusses China on television and radio and has testified before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. In his spare time, David is an avid marathon runner, a kitchen volunteer at So Others Might Eat, and an expert mentor at 1776, a Washington, D.C.-based incubator and seed fund. Originally from Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, David is a proud returned Peace Corps volunteer. He holds an English degree from Yale University and a law degree from Harvard University. Twitter: @dwertime

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.