Does Chinese president Xi Jinping really earn just $22,000 a year?

Raises for Xi and all his friends.
Raises for Xi and all his friends.
Image: Reuters/Carlos Barria
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Chinese president Xi Jinping is getting a raise. According to China’s ministry of human resources and social security, Xi’s base salary will now be a whopping 11,385 yuan (about $1,830) a month, up from 7,020 yuan—or about $22,000 a year. As a comparison, US president Barack Obama earns $400,000 a year, and Hong Kong’s controversial chief executive makes about $545,000 a year.

It’s not just Xi—all members of China elite Politburo Standing Committee will now earn the same base salary, and the lowest-ranked civil servants nearly doubled their base salary to 1,320 yuan ($212.50) a month.

Instead of showcasing the frugality of the country’s public servants, the announcement has served as a reminder how rampant corruption is among Chinese officials—officials are paid small salaries that they top up with kickbacks and other “gifts.” These include everything from luxury products, cigarettes, and gift cards to bribes of up to 35.5 million yuan.

“Given that price of things has grown so high in recent years, how do these civil servants survive, especially with their many cars and properties? Who can explain that to me? I have never seen one work part-time as a beggar,” said one blogger (registration required) on the microblog Weibo.

It’s a good question, given that Xi, as well as many other top Chinese officials, send their children abroad to expensive boarding schools and top universities. (Xi’s daughter reportedly attends Harvard under a pseudonym.) One explanation is that Chinese officials stash their ill-gotten wealth offshore in tax havens and via relatives in complex financial structures that allow them to own mansions and yachts with anonymity. A 2012 Bloomberg investigation found that members of Xi’s extended family held multi-million dollar investments and owned luxury properties in Hong Kong, though no assets were ever traced to Xi himself.

Xi’s anti-corruption campaign has pledged to crack down on all of that. Just yesterday, he was quoted on a military newspaper’s Weibo site saying “From now, officers’ main incomes should be from their salaries, not so-called grey incomes or illegal gains; otherwise they can expect to be punished.” 

Aside from the occasional state news report, though, the salaries of top Chinese officials are not disclosed, and activists that have campaigned for officials to declare their assets publicly have been detained. It’s not likely that we’ll ever know how much China’s most powerful man actually earns.