Opinion / Op-Ed Contributors

To give, or not to give officials welfare benefits

By Mao Shoulong (China Daily) Updated: 2014-09-22 07:40

Amid the call for frugality and the fight against corruption, many grassroots civil servants lament their shrinking bonuses, especially because their salaries remain miserable.

This has prompted many observers to say that the anti-corruption campaign has deprived grassroots civil servants - who have no way to earn money in the corrupt way - of the few benefits they were entitled to. But grassroots civil servants, despite not having much power, could be corrupt too, because they can actually influence many aspects of administration by the way they carry out the orders of senior officials. This is why the country's top leader Xi Jinping has emphasized that the anti-corruption campaign has to target "tigers" and "flies" both.

It was standard practice for government departments to give gifts to civil servants as part of their bonus during festivals. The gifts varied from a few moon cakes, packets of rice, meat and edible oil to shopping vouchers worth thousands of yuan. Since most of the grassroots officials got only small gifts such as moon cakes (as opposed to high-value vouchers), even people who support the anti-corruption campaign say the lower-rung officials should not be denied the benefits.

But whether such gifts are part of employees' bonus or bribes in disguise does not depend on their value but on whether civil servants truly deserve them. But to ensure employees get their due benefits and, at the same time, prevent corruption we need to set up a transparent system.

China should learn from developed countries where civil servants don't receive tangible goods as festival gifts because of a clear division between private and public resources. In Germany, for instance, a civil servant is not even allowed to make private calls using office phones. Also, government departments hosting banquets have to follow strict regulations.

Some observers have suggested that civil servants' welfare packages should be added to their incomes in order to rule out doubts over corruption. But this process is complicated, because it is difficult to calculate the value of rice, cakes or edible oil to determine the amount of tax such gifts entail.

Besides, giving small gifts as bonus is also fraught with other problems - waste generation, for example. In previous years, it was common to read reports saying that after Mid-Autumn Festival, street cleaners found huge numbers of unopened moon cake packages in dumpsters. Plus, there is always the fear that by giving gifts to people who don't want them or are against the practice of taking and giving gifts, we could embarrass them.

Therefore, instead of a "gray" welfare system, which many believe leads to misuse of public funds, we need a transparent mechanism for officials' salaries.

Grassroots civil servants, whose incomes are generally meager, feel that they are being denied their due because they had become used to festival gifts. Therefore, while taxpayers' money should not be used to provide civil servants unnecessary benefits, the authorities should set up a mechanism to determine the rational value of welfare gifts that officials deserve.

The author is the dean of the School of Public Administration and Policy, Renmin University of China.

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