Bribery in China is pervasive, under attack, and surprisingly cheap

Former railways minister Liu Zhijun in court.
Former railways minister Liu Zhijun in court.
Image: AP Photo/CCTV via AP Video
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Former China railway minister Liu Zhijun received a suspended death sentence on Monday for accepting $10.5 million in bribes over 25 years, making him the highest ranking official to fall prey to President Xi Jinping’s crackdown. But what really has media users agog is not the takedown of a big fish, but just how cheaply the favors of Chinese officials can be bought.

A list of bribes that a real estate company in China’s central Ningxia province gave to government officials was published online over the weekend, and the sums are less than awe-inspiring. A halal food license from a religious affairs official, for example, can be bought for just 1000 yuan ($163). At that rate, bribery appears to be more of an income supplement than a path to riches. The amounts vary, but none exceed 3,000 yuan; gift cards and “donations” are the preferred methods of delivery.

Tea Leaf Nation quotes one Chinese user of the microblogging service Weibo who says that all companies give money to tax collectors and other officials, but “even if you bribe them, there is no guarantee that they won’t screw with you. But if you don’t, they will definitely screw with you.” This poses a tough challenge for foreign companies trying to operate in China, particularly if they are under the jurisdiction of laws like the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which makes it illegal for American companies to give bribes in other countries.

That’s especially since the everything-can-be-bought culture is pervasive in almost all elements of business and public services in China. The front seat in a school classroom can be purchased, as can your child’s grades or admission to a desirable school. Internal party votes and influence are often bought (though not always successfully), and academic research also has a price tag. One man from Shenzhen intentionally crashed his car 334 times in three years and then bribed mechanics to exaggerate the damage so he could claim insurance.

President Xi Jinping began his ten-year tenure this year as the most powerful man in China by promising to fight corruption at all levels of government, whether it comes from high ranking “tigers” like Mr Liu, or low-ranking lackeys like those targeted by the  Ningxia real estate firm, which Xi called “flies.” Over $123 billion has left China in the hands of corrupt officials since the mid-1990s, according to its central bank, but Beijing (with the recent cooperation of Canada) is cracking down on runaway assets, too. China’s leaders have published naming and shaming lists online, employed a brutal internal party disciplinary system to interrogate the worst—or most inconvenient—offenders, made threats to deter tempted officials and tried to set an example at the top.

But as the Liu sentencing and the Ningxia price list both show, there are still millions of tigers and flies left in China.