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January 12, 2012

Recently one of my friends, who works in a kindergarten, was on her way in to the classroom when a couple of parents ambushed her and thrust an envelope into her hands. Taken by surprise, she wasn’t altogether sure what was in the envelope or what she should do. She peeked inside and saw a shiny, new bank card. Nestled next to the card was a piece of paper with the PIN number for the card, and a note asking my friend to take extra special care of her child in class. Kindergarten class.

It seems preposterous, but this is a common scenario all over China, and not just in kindergartens, but in secondary schools, hospitals, and even parking lots. These “gifts” are often referred to as “Hong Bao,” (红包) after the red envelopes that are given at weddings and as gifts on other special occasions. Handing out hong bao to people who provide a service for you is seen as a way to ensure that you receive preferential treatment: that the knife doesn’t slip; that your child gets an A; that the security guard doesn’t slack off when watching your car etc. The hong bao phenomenon has always existed in China, but as the middle and upper classes increase in numbers, the prevalence of hong bao is on the rise and manifesting itself in many ways.

The Cost of Preferential Treatment: Hong Bao in China

To hong bao or not to hong bao…?

Knowing when and where to give hong bao can be a minefield, however. Folk wisdom has it that hong baos are absolutely necessary before surgery, minor or major. In response to one question regarding the necessity of hong bao in Beijing’s hospitals on Baidu’s (China’s own version of Google) “Zhidao” page (a questions and answers forum), people replied “why risk it?”, “Give whatever you can afford, but give something no matter what”. One respondent replied in detail saying, “Give 2000 RMB for the lead surgeon, 1000 for the assistant surgeon, and 500 for the anesthesiologist. You should also buy some tickets to movies and plays and things like cigarettes, small gifts worth 20 – 30 RMB for nurses. This way you are sure to receive the best treatment. It really works!” While the government does not condone hong bao, few people seem willing to risk not giving hong bao when a loved one’s life is at stake.

However, even situations that are not life and death have seen the encroachment of small scale bribery in the form of hong bao on every day life is evident. Car owners often give the security guards who watch over their Infinity or Lexus a special gift to make sure that their car gets a choice parking spot and that, the idea seems to be, if any would-be car thieves set their sights on the hong-bao giver’s car, the guard would kindly point them in the direction of the Audi next door instead. On internet message boards, for parents, the topic of whether or not to give a hong bao is hotly contested. In kindergartens, parents seem to give hong bao mostly because others give hong bao. The parents reason that without the additional incentive their children might be treated poorly. Some claim that kindergarten teachers don’t make a lot of money, and that they want to show the teachers they are appreciated. Different kindergartens have different rules regarding whether or not teachers are allowed to receive money from parents, and public schools are, surprisingly, most likely to turn a blind eye. Private schools and international schools often have rules that do not allow teachers to accept hong bao or any cash equivalents. Several schools even have rules which state that teachers receiving hong bao will be fired immediately if they are caught. These rules were made in response to not only the commonality of hong baos, but to the increasingly outrageous amounts that parents seemed willing to spend in order to “ensure” their child’s place in the kindergarten pecking order.

Tradition vs Principles

Still, there are people who disagree with the hong bao phenomenon and refuse to take part in it. One doctor says, “We were taught in medical school that it is our duty to our profession to treat everyone the same. If we let something happen to a patient just because he didn’t give a hong bao, how could we respect ourselves?” One kindergarten parent said that she didn’t give hong bao because she felt that her child was happy and well taken care of in school, and that in the end her child would have to learn how to take care of himself anyhow, so she shouldn’t use hong baos to solve all problems. Another parent and ex-teacher said that in her years as a teacher she had parents who gave hong bao and those who didn’t, and she treated the children all the same no matter what.

Whether or not hong bao are truly necessary is definitely a question with no clear answer. Since many professionals claim that bribery has no effect on how they do their job, it would seem that hong bao are mostly a problem that has been created not necessarily by the people receiving the hong bao, but by the people giving them. The fear seems to be that when others give small monetary gifts, you will look bad, stingy, or it will seem that you don’t care nearly as much as everyone else. Many bemoan the societal factors that have created the necessity for bribery in our daily lives, but at the same time claim that they are powerless to stop a force that was set in motion long ago.

The general consensus seems to be “Well, everyone else is doing it,” and in a society where sticking out and being different, or standing up for one’s beliefs even if it means you (or your child or your car) do not get the best treatment possible, is generally out of the question. The one clear message seems to be this: be principled at your own risk.

More entries: What Do You Do? “Strange” Jobs in China, Same Name, Different Game: 5 Ugly Facets of the Chinese Workplace, Can the Chinese Still Eat Bitterness? Hardship and Personal Crisis in Modern China (2), The Cost of Preferential Treatment: Hong Bao in China, Guide to Popular Street Food in China, Got a Light? The Status of Smoking in China, The Bewitching World of China’s Ghost Stories, Literary Legacy: Five Must-Read Chinese Novels for Foreigners (1), Help Thy Neighbor: Explaining Civic Apathy in China, Top 10 Things to Do Before Leaving China (1)

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