China: Lunar New Year without a bribe?

The Communist Party speaks sharply – yet again – in a bid to curtail flourishing seasonal corruption.

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    Bright New Year: A woman in Shanghai considered her options as she strolled among colorful traditional decorations for the Chinese Lunar New Year, which falls on Jan. 26.
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Spare a thought, as Chinese New Year approaches, for Song Yuanfang.

The Communist Party boss in the eastern town of Liaocheng, Mr. Song could have expected a generous holiday gift from a local gas distribution company, according to his entry in that company's "2009 Public Relations Maintenance Budget," which somebody leaked this week on the Internet.

The document's publication presumably forestalled that particular bribe. But elsewhere in China, corruption is flourishing with special seasonal vigor.

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The Lunar New Year is China's biggest holiday, and according to a recent article in the People's Daily, the ruling Communist Party's mouthpiece, "more than 80 percent of corruption cases occur during the holidays."

That, the paper explained, is because "some officials normally alert to bribery relax their vigilance in a happy and joyful atmosphere and accept gifts. Then they cannot stop themselves, and slide into the criminal abyss."

The New Year, at which gift-giving is traditional not only among family members but also between business contacts, offers ideal cover for bribery, of course. Whose eyebrows are raised by the offer of a holiday present?

The same sort of problem arises at the Mid-Autumn Festival, when Chinese give each other "moon cakes." So elaborate had the "accessories" included with the cakes become – watches and cellphones were popular – that two years ago the government imposed rules stipulating that packaging and accessories should not be worth more than 25 percent of the value of the moon cakes themselves.

This year, with an economic downturn clouding the New Year atmosphere, and millions of Chinese losing their jobs, the authorities recently issued guidelines on how government and Communist Party officials should behave over the holiday season.

"Officials should firmly build the idea of living a frugal life … and prevent extravagant behavior," said the instructions from the Communist Party Central Committee's Discipline and Supervision Department. "They are strictly banned from accepting gifts … from units or individuals with whom they have business relationships."

Whether these exhortations will do any good – even backed by the threat that "the government will expose serious violations to the public" – is unclear. The government is always launching one campaign or another against corruption; a five-year antigraft plan was announced last June, suggesting that the five-point anticorruption plan that Premier Wen Jiabao had unveiled 18 months earlier was not working.

But the gloomy economic outlook, and the need not to offend the citizenry, has lent extra edge this year to the government's insistence that ruling party officials not live too high off the hog.

At the beginning of "a difficult fiscal year," Vice Premier Li Keqiang said last week, the government would "firmly oppose extravagance and waste."

"Using government funds for visits, gift-giving, feasting, sightseeing, and expensive entertainment activities is strictly forbidden," the edict from the Discipline and Supervision Department proclaimed.

In Kunming, the provincial capital of Yunnan, the local government has issued unusually detailed "Temporary Regulations on Government Receptions" over the holiday period, specifying, among other things, that at any official meal, "the number of hosts should be smaller than the number of guests."

I know what they mean. On a recent reporting trip in the south of China, I found myself the guest of honor at a banquet attended by 12 employees of a state-owned company, hardly any of whom showed the slightest interest in me and who were clearly using my presence merely as an excuse to spend some government money on a first-rate meal.

It may take more than an economic slowdown and a few injunctions from on high to eradicate such habits, especially during a holiday.

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