In China, the possibility of “gray income” can be an important factor when choosing a job. “Gray income” simply refers to receiving “gifts” in exchange for improved service. It is most common when someone controls access to something like health care, education or job opportunities. The difference between this and bribery seems rather arbitrary, but people in China seem to accept the former while being disgusted by the latter.
The prevalence of gray income jumped out at me the other day after a good friend told me of a discussion he had in a local noodle shop with an off-duty policeman and his friend. At some point the policeman’s friend brought up the issue of gray income and how police officers have many sources of it, which the policeman vehemently denied. His friend than countered with a single piece of damning evidence, somehow this lowly public servant was able to afford to send his daughter to study in the US.
I’ve noticed similar disparities between people’s income and the purchases they make, and many Chinese netizens have taken notice too. In my office we joke that doctors’ coats have many pockets, because they need many places to hold red envelopes. Colleagues brush it off by saying that this is simply a way for the patient to thank them.
More often though, gray income is disguised in gift giving.
I was unaware of this when I first started working at the hospital. During my first month a doctor handed me a box of green tea after I mentioned that I enjoyed drinking it. As soon as the words escaped my mouth, I realized that I had unintentionally placed a social obligation on him that required him to fulfill my reasonable wish (we’ll talk about gift giving more tomorrow). I didn’t feel bad about accepting the box of tea from him since I had seen the closet he retrieved it from was full of similar boxes. Having been given a nice box of tea, I thought it best not to ask too many questions; it was a nice gift.
Yesterday, I finally finished that box of tea, and asked one of my co-workers in my office if she had any tea leaves I could use for my daily tea (it’s winter, and hot beverages are one of our few sources of heat). She pulled out a massive chest and removed a new tin of tea for me. I tried to decline the gift, since I really just needed a pinch, but she insisted, “People give me tea all the time.”
Being nosy (for your sake), I asked, “Who gave you the tea?” To which she replied, “An old gov’t official. He wanted to thank me for helping his mother stay in the hospital.” From our following discussion it was clear that in her mind this was a “gift” and not a “bribe” because it had come after the mother had checked-in.
Like all public hospitals in China, we often operate at 110% capacity, with patient beds spilling into the hallways. Unfortunately, gifts often grease the wheels when it comes time to check-in.
Interestingly, this same co-worker has complained to me numerous times about the wasteful spending on banquets and the way others indulge themselves at public expense.
This form of bribery has even created an entire market of goods that fall into the “gift” category, that are meant to aid in opening doors and making connections. A trip to the local supermarket reveals the low-end range of these items: tea, coffee, mooncakes (around Mid-Autumn Festival), and a variety of local specialties. All of these regular products come in gift form at much higher prices. When you move into more specialized stores, you can see the range of these products move to ever higher price points.
While green tea might be slightly more innocuous than sliding a red envelope into someone’s hand, in reality there is little difference between the two. This socially acceptable bribe is still bribery and encompasses a much larger segment of the population, making it difficult for morally compromised recipients to blow the whistle on the more egregious offenders.