When is a Bribe Not a Bribe? When It’s in a Red Envelope

Red envelopes filled with money are customary gifts in China, called "hongbao." (Graphicstock.com)
Red envelopes filled with money are customary gifts in China, called "hongbao." (Graphicstock.com)

Giving a large sum of money to a surgeon before surgery, beyond the cost of the actual operation, would usually be called a bribe in the West. Yet in China, it’s the norm. And, the norm is to give the money (and as much of it as possible) inside a red envelope, called “hongbao“.

American Fulbright lecturer, Stephen T. Asma, who often sees the butting of Western and Chinese cultural heads in Beijing says: “Everyone knows to do this [in China].”

But what do American’s think about it? Well, at his lunch table one day, with both Chinese and Americans, the American’s thought the process was “unethical bribery,” and one asked the Chinese why they couldn’t just give the money after the surgery.

The Chinese thought the suggestion was either ridiculous, stupid, weird, or all of the above. “Of course it biases the doctor. That’s why we do it,” they said.

Well, duh to us and to sterilized Western objectivity.

So, the next time you wonder why bribery is rife in China. Take note from Stephen T. Asma’s ponderings, and you might find yourself thinking just a little more Chinese.

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