No more dumpling and mooncake gifts for Chinese officials

No more dumpling and mooncake gifts for Chinese officials
File Photo: A man buys cigarettes at a newsstand carrying a newspaper with front page cover of China's then Politburo Standing Committee Member Zhou Yongkang in Beijing July 30, 2014.

Heilongjiang official Cao Li remembers getting dumplings and mooncakes, some of them given by subordinates, at festival time. But no more.

Even "small perks" such as these have disappeared since China's President Xi Jinping launched his austerity and anti-corruption drive nearly two years ago.

Instead, officials like Ms Cao, who works in the north-eastern province dealing with petitions from the public over disputes against government agencies, are constantly reminded that they must serve the people, or "wei ren min fu wu".

"Our work is more hectic and expectations are higher, but we have lost our perks and our salaries have not risen," Ms Cao, who has 18 years' experience and earns 3,200 yuan (S$648) a month, told The Sunday Times.

China has about 7.6 million officials, all used to a cushy life until Mr Xi took power in late 2012 and made rooting out official corruption a top priority.

Among the first things to go were perks such as taking official cars for personal use and overseas holidays in the guise of an official training trip. Officials also had to surrender private club membership cards.

And if there is anything that Chinese officials can be sure of, it's that President Xi has no intention of stepping on the brakes.

The anti-graft campaign hit new heights recently when retired Politburo Standing Committee member Zhou Yongkang was put under investigation and former Central Military Commission vice-chairman Xu Caihou was sacked from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Last month, China ramped up its frugality drive by revamping the policy on official cars, which are an important status symbol. Central government officials of all ranks below deputy minister will no longer get an official car from next year but will get a transport allowance of about 500 to 1,300 yuan.

Among the eight officials interviewed by The Sunday Times, most said they did not expect the two campaigns to last more than a year.

As officials are not well-paid, many are worried about losing the perks that helped supplement their income, and also the possibility of being disciplined for not doing their work well, accepting gifts or being extravagant.

The head of a county-level committee of the National People's Congress in northern Shaanxi province, who did not want to be identified, said the downfall of Mr Zhou and General Xu exerted more pressure on officials like him.

"There is certainly more mental stress. We have to be more exacting in doing our work and make sure we follow the rules strictly," he told The Sunday Times.

A lawyer who worked with state oil producer China National Petroleum Corporation noted how staff did not dare celebrate after inking a multi-billion-yuan deal with a South American country.

"Everyone went to the office canteen to eat. There was no celebration because obviously, everyone was being cautious," said the lawyer, 30, who declined to be named.

Another example of the paranoia among Chinese officials: A Singaporean executive recently bought some cakes from Bengawan Solo for his Chinese business partners. They panicked when they saw him with the treats and shooed him into their office.

They told him they knew he wasn't trying to bribe them, but his gesture could be misconstrued and get them into trouble.

To be sure, many officials support the two campaigns.

The austerity drive is widely deemed to have achieved its aim of improving the public image of CCP and government officials. The anti-graft campaign has purged the current leadership's political opponents, which will give its reform agenda a boost.

A Chinese civil servant, 29, who works for a state investment enterprise and did not want to be named, said the anti-graft campaign is in general viewed positively among her peers as "it removes inefficiencies in the system".

"Certainly since the people I work with are all 'clean' and we believe we are genuinely contributing positively to our country, we are not worried about losing our jobs," she told The Sunday Times.

"Certainly we will make sure whatever we do, we leave a paper trail so that there will be no dispute in future."

However, there is a rising chorus of concern over the negative impact, especially on the Chinese economy.

Chinese officials slashed spending by 326 billion yuan last year compared to 2012, which has reportedly led to weaker growth in sales and fixed-asset investment.

Economist Alastair Chan of Moody's Analytics said in a note last month that the two campaigns contributed to declining housing market transactions, and reduced construction of overly luxurious local government buildings.

"Possibly as a result, GDP growth fell from 9.3 per cent in 2011 to 7.7 per cent in 2012 and 2013," he added.

There are also worries about morale, with a growing number of officials reportedly quitting to join the private sector or officials committing suicide due to disciplinary investigations. Official statistics show fewer Chinese are applying to join the civil service.

A Beijing official, 28, who wanted to be known only by his surname Xiang, is quitting his job as an accounts clerk next year.

"The iron ricebowl looks set to be smashed by this new leadership," he said.

"It might be better to leave early before it is too late."

Additional reporting by Carol Feng and Lina Miao

This article was published on Aug 17 in The Straits Times.

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