Virtual red envelopes and online gifts difficult to detect behind 'invisibility cloak', experts say
China is turning its attention to highlighting the hidden ways in which officials are paid bribes, with plans to regulate prepaid gift cards as part of its anti-corruption campaign.
In the past, prepaid gift cards were very popular as an untraceable way to bribe public officials. As early as 2012, restrictions were introduced, and anyone buying a high-value prepaid gift card had to register their name and address.
However, taking advantage of online shopping platforms, third-party delivery people and online payments, more gift cards were able to circulate among officials undetected, People's Daily reported.
"Some packages are very small, I thought it was a USB flash disk; it turned out to be gift cards," a delivery person with the surname Wang told the newspaper.
People's Daily said the new channels for bribery include electronic gift cards, virtual red envelopes with real money and e-commerce websites, which have put an "invisibility cloak" over gift card corruption.
On Feb 3, the official website of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection exposed 620 cases of violating the "eight-point rules" introduced in 2012 to curb extravagance among public officials. Taking red envelopes filled with cash and gift cards ranked third in the violations.
Huang Shuxian, deputy secretary of the commission, said during an online interview that China's top anti-corruption authority would introduce new policies to combat these hidden channels of bribery.
"For cases involving bribes through delivery people, vouchers, electronic prepaid gift cards and electronic red envelopes, we should pay more attention to tell the difference between normal social activities and bribes."
Huang also said the authority will focus on festivals, as they provide cover for lavish spending of taxpayers' money.
According to China Economic Weekly, under Zhou Yongkang's leadership the minimum cost of a banquet at China National Petroleum Corporation would be 100,000 yuan(S$22,000). And this kind of lavish banquet would happen every day.
However, civil servants and employees of state-owned enterprises have faced a less lavish lunar New Year this time.
A staff member with a branch company of SINOPEC, who asked to be identified only with his surname Liu, said company benefits including prepaid shopping cards and book cards have been cut since 2012.
"Celebrations were cancelled as well. At the same time, dinner between colleagues is forbidden," said Liu.
Liu also said the company's bonuses have not been adjusted for years, although they should be based on an employee's working years as well as the company's profits.
Liu agreed that some gray benefits of working for a state-owned enterprise, such as some bonuses and gifts, should be cut. However, he urged that salaries should truly represent the value of employees.
Zhu Lijia, a professor of public administration at the Chinese Academy of Governance, said corruption during festivals is part of the culture and is hard to combat because it is very hard to tell individual behaviour from corrupt behaviour.
"High-tech ways should be implemented to monitor other possible avenues for bribes," suggested Zhu.
"For example, the discipline inspection bureau can work with banks to monitor money transfers involving large sums," he said.