The cost of bribery in China: $163

HONG KONG — Everybody in China knows that corruption is ubiquitous, but most people had no idea just how cheaply some officials can be bought.

That's the surprising conclusion people are drawing from a leaked catalog of bribes supposedly paid by a real-estate development company in the northern backwater province of Ningxia.

According to the document, which neatly lists 47 officials who received "gifts" or "donations" from the company, the going rate for the director of religious affairs is a measly $163. (Like most of the bribes, it was given in the form of a gift card.) Section chief of the planning department? Also $163. The mayor's secretary? A relatively pricey $326. The departments covered in the bribe ranged from the central administration to the land-tax bureau to the police. 

Users of China's equivalent of Twitter, Sina Weibo, were stunned by the stinginess of the sums. Yet some — clearly familiar with the mechanics of corruption — pointed out that such bribes are paid not for contracts, but simply to avoid persecution.

“This is totally normal,” wrote one, as translated by TeaLeafNation. “All the companies do this at the end of the year, especially giving to the registration bureaus, tax collectors and health inspectors. Even if you bribe them, there is no guarantee that they won’t screw with you. But if you don’t, they will definitely screw with you.”

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"Now I understand why everyone scrambles to become a 'civil servant,'" wrote another Weibo user. "You have this company giving you a gift today, that company giving you a gift tomorrow. All you have to do is sit at the office drinking tea and reading newspapers. Anyone who wouldn't want that is an idiot!"

Of course, the size of the bribe depends on the importance of the official. This week, former railway minister Liu Zhijun became one of the highest-ranking officials ever prosecuted for corruption in China. The graft he handled was staggering: Liu was accused of accepting some $10 million in bribes, for which he received a death sentence with a two-year reprieve. Meanwhile, in Sichuan province, a young deputy penned an open letter of resignation claiming that his government salary was so low he couldn't support his family unless he took bribes or borrowed money from his parents.

Since November, President Xi Jinping has made an anti-corruption drive against "tigers" (big officials) and "flies" (small ones) one of the centerpieces of his policy. He ordered officials to curtail big banquets and spurn cash gifts. Beijing even created a website for citizens to report corrupt officials, though it crashed on the first day.

While corruption is so entrenched at every level of society that many doubt Xi can really succeed in eradicating graft, the fact that officials are willing to tolerate public debate over things like the Ningxia document leak are heartening. By Wednesday the post had been shared nearly 2,000 times, generating over 1,000 responses, and censors had made no apparent attempt to take it down. 

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