BEIJING — If you want a full-time teaching job, but you're stuck in a temporary gig without health benefits, Luo Chunlei advises that you buy the school principal a box of mooncakes and follow up with an envelope of dough.
Having an operation? Better slip the surgeon some cash. And don't forget the anesthesiologist.
"I'm absolutely disgusted by it, but this is how our system works," said Luo, a 32-year-old math teacher turned activist who is campaigning against what he sees as Chinese society's pervasive culture of corruption.
Gift-giving has long been a staple of Chinese life, but the means and expectations are increasingly colliding with more modern anti-graft strictures.
This year, the government has turned party pooper, railing against excessive gift-giving.
"Gift-giving is a must, but you should avoid extravagance," advised an editorial in People's Daily, which warned against gifts of luxury brands, wine, expensive cigarettes, large amounts of cash, and sex.
The new standards on gift-giving are part of an austerity campaign launched by Xi Jinping since he stepped up to the presidency in March. The crackdown began in earnest last month with the start of the holiday season.
Wang Qishan, the vice premier who has been named anti-corruption czar under the new government, warned that "decadent styles have polluted our festival culture in recent years with the sending of increasingly extravagant gifts … drifting further away from our frugal virtues."
"China has always been a society of guanxi," or connections, said Hu Xingdou, an economist at the Beijing Institute of Technology. "Treating people to meals, giving people gifts, is all part of the Chinese lifestyle. This is something that goes way back and definitely clashes with the rule of law."
The crackdown has forced Chinese to confront tough questions about how much is too much.
For the Mid-Autumn Festival, business associates generally trade hockey-puck-shaped mooncakes that sometimes cost $200 per box.
Luxury Panda brand cigarettes wrapped for holidays are designed less for smoking than gifting to impress, with prices up to $50 a pack. In southern China, cash is slipped into fetching red envelopes known as hongbao. Gift certificates are another popular option because they can be readily traded for cash.
Parents are also expected to ante up a gift on Teachers' Day, a public holiday on Sept. 10, to help ensure that their children get good grades.
Such gifts are chicken feed compared with Montblanc pens and $10,000 Rolex watches.
Or a $3-million villa on the French Riviera, the key piece of evidence in the bribery trial of former Chongqing Communist Party Secretary Bo Xilai, who was recently sentenced to life in prison.
Last month, the Chinese government banned the use of public funds to buy mooncakes for the harvest festival. According to the People's Daily, government officials had been buying expensive mooncakes with public funds to give to superiors in charge of promotions and audits.
The gift-giving tradition is an offshoot of the intensity of competition in China, where a large population fights for education, healthcare and jobs.
Activist Luo, who comes from a small northeastern city in Jilin province, said that his family paid 100,000 yuan — about $16,000 — in cash under the table at a public hospital two years ago when his grandfather was having surgery for colon cancer, although the medical care was nominally covered by his insurance.
Parents in his hometown have to pay at least $3,200 if they want to transfer their child to a better school, he added.
"Of course, there is no receipt for any of this. It's just cash under the table," Luo said.
Although there is no organized movement against gift-giving, it is a popular subject on the Internet, with ambivalence expressed by those receiving as well as giving.
In a blog published last year, one anonymous teacher with 20 years' experience complained of the pressure from parents constantly extending invitations to meals and offering gifts. "If we don't accept, we have lost our dignity," the teacher wrote.
In fact, turning down gifts can prove risky: A doctor in Jiangxi province who rejected a red envelope of cash from the family of a man injured in a car accident was beaten by the family members and suffered a fractured skull. It turned out that they were so surprised to have their gift rejected that they assumed he'd gotten a bigger bribe from the driver of the car involved.
To highlight the problem of graft in government, Chinese activists have enlarged photographs of officials to zoom in on expensive watches that they would not be expected to buy on civil service salaries that run no more than $850 per month. One mid-level provincial official was discovered by an activist to have a collection of timepieces that included a $62,000 Vacheron Constantin, earning him the nickname "Brother Watch" and a 14-year prison sentence.
Sales at luxury shops in Beijing rise sharply in March, when delegates to the National People's Congress seek to ingratiate themselves with their superiors. Under the law, officials are not supposed to take gifts valued at more than about $820 each. But the law is widely disregarded and unevenly enforced.
There is also confusion about whether family members of officials are allowed to accept gifts.
During the Bo Xilai trial, prosecutors presented evidence that his wife, Gu Kailai, and son, Bo Guagua, had accepted millions of dollars in gifts that included the villa in France and plane tickets. Bo argued his innocence on the grounds that he did not know about the gifts or benefit personally from them.
The court rejected Bo's claim, and in several recent cases, including the corruption trial of a former railroad minister, officials have been convicted of accepting bribes on the basis of money given to their mistresses.
Another point of contention is whether gifts of even a small amount should be allowed.
"If you really want to stop corruption, you have to have a zero tolerance for gifts because in China there isn't always a quid pro quo. It is about building relationships," said Ira Belkin, an expert in Chinese criminal law at New York University.
President Xi is not the first Chinese leader to speak up about corruption.
"There is a pattern in China. Each time a new leader comes in, he sets a fire and starts to crack down very hard on corruption," said Qiao Xinsheng, a professor at the Zhongnan University of Economics and Law, which set up what it calls the Institute of Clean Governance. "These campaigns come and go. But over time, it is inevitable that China will become a more transparent society with less tolerance for corruption.''
Critics question whether the current campaign is meant more as a political purge than new focus on corruption. Many of those in trouble are associates of Xi's rivals, like Bo.
In addition, there is a heavy focus on Western companies — among them GlaxoSmithKline, the Alcon eye care firm and Danone, which makes baby formula — accused of making improper payments to doctors and hospital staff, practices that are common as well for Chinese firms.
Hu, the economist, said that enforcement of anti-corruption laws in China remains selective at best.
"It has to be selective. We couldn't possibly hold all Chinese officials to the same standard because if we did, there would be no officials left standing,'' he said.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times