Hongbao (China)

From Global Informality Project
Jump to: navigation, search
Hongbao 🇨🇳
China map.png
Location: China
Definition: Handing over informal payments disguised as a gift
Keywords: China East Asia Gift Payment Envelope Facilitation Public service Bribe Favour
Clusters: Redistribution Substantive ambivalence Sociability of instrumentality Economies of favours
Author: Lei Tan
Affiliation: Alumna, School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London, UK
Website: Profile page at Researchgate

By Lei Tan, Alumna, School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London, UK

Chinese people regularly give hongbao, a red paper packet or envelope filled with money (always in notes) as gifts for weddings, birthdays, New Year celebrations and other important events. Normally, it is given as ‘luck money’ by the older generation to the younger generation, or by a superior to subordinates, or by married colleagues to unmarried colleagues on the first working day after the New Year (Huang 2003: 1-24[1]). The sum of money in the hongbao is not fixed and it is based on the relationship between the giver and recipient, i.e. the closer the relationship, the greater the sum of money given. The hongbao culture is also commonly found in other Chinese societies; analogous practices include lishi in Hong Kong and ang pow in Singapore.

In present day China however, in certain circumstances hongbao can also be considered a bribe. Although bribery worldwide is usually related to monetary reward and to unethical behavior, in China, where there is a distinctive and historical custom of hongbao, a case of bribery is harder to distinguish, as it depends entirely on the context in which the money is given. The widespread practice of giving money as a gift can be traced back to the Song Dynasty in the 12th century, when giving money, or lishi was first recorded. 1,000 years ago Chinese parents gave their children 100 coins called yasuiqian in the belief that it would bring them luck and that they would live to be 100 years old. (NLB Singapore 2005[2]). The first use of the term hongbao seems to have been in the nineteenth Century.

In contrast with many other countries in the world that are influenced by a spiritual tradition that perceives money as something dirty or unspiritual (Bian 2011: 17-131[3]), China with no dominant religious belief, has no such inhibition. Contemporary Chinese culture is not influenced by spiritual values and as a consequence money is not negatively connoted. As a result, Chinese people are generally very money oriented and consider that money can bring them the two most important things in life -fame and power. Some Chinese people even regard money as a crucial criterion in determining social status, believing that the richer you are, the higher your social standing. Such money-oriented culture can be traced back to ancient times. The Chinese people have had a long-standing tradition of burning paper money in ancestral veneration. The offering of money is made to the spirits and then the paper is set alight to transfer it to the afterworld.

In recent time, hongbao has become a commonly used tool in China for developing guanxi (an instrumental network of relationships- see this volume), with the specific aim of gaining preferential treatment. The boundary between hongbao being given as a gift or as a bribe has become blurred. For example, in the context of education it is common for parents to give their child’s teachers a hongbao on teacher’s day to show their appreciation. In this instance parents give hongbao as a manifestation of gratitude, and as such, the practice is considered ethical. However, it is also possible for the donating parents to use this act to convey a subtle expectation of receiving some advantage or preferential treatment for their child, such as personal attention or better grades. In this situation, the giving of the gift of hongbao may be regarded as a bribe. Similarly, a businessman might give hongbao as a wedding gift to the son or daughter of an influential government official. The hongbao is given straightforwardly as a wedding gift. However, if shortly after the wedding, the businessman informs the government official euphemistically that he needs a government permit to expand his business, the gift might rightly be construed as a bribe.

Image of poster describing the informal practice of Hongbao. Artist: Lei Tan

Since giving hongbao as a bribe most commonly serves the interaction between businessmen (bribers) and officials (bribe takers), it is easy to see how the private/public boundary is routinely crossed. In China, under the duress of law and social norms, officials are reluctant to accept bribes, so self-justification strategies come into play (Huang 1990: 289-312[4]).

Businessmen use two main ‘self-justification’ strategies during hongbao-giving employing a variety of subtle measures to disguise the bribes as gifts, thus outwardly behaving in a normative manner. Firstly, businessmen do not give hongbao to officials direct - instead they find an intermediary to act as a third party. In instances where a businessman and official have not yet established a relationship, the use of an intermediary is even more essential. In the context of a relationship of low mutual trust, no matter how much an official was desirous of receiving a bribe, it would be refused. In order to be successful, in a premeditated sequence of events, the businessman will give hongbao to relatives or close associates of the official he wishes to bribe. Then, at a later date, once relationship ties are better established, he will ask the intermediary to deliver hongbao to the official he originally wanted to bribe. Even though the official might be fully aware of the real nature of hongbao, presented in this way as normative gift-giving behaviour between parties who have close relationships, the official is able to accept it. The culture of hongbao dictates that the recipient should not open the envelope in public, nor show too much eagerness to receive it. This allows officials to feel ‘obliged’ to accept the offering, as refusing a gift is considered inappropriate and discourteous. However, once the ‘gift’ is accepted, it opens the door to future demands of bribery in return for benefits.

The second criteria businessmen use to give legitimacy to hongbao is to ensure that it is given only at specific times and in specific spaces. Businessmen wait and use the traditional Chinese holidays such as New Year, the Spring Festival and important family functions such as weddings as opportunities to give hongbao bribes disguised as gifts. The normative gift giving practice of the special occasion allows bribery to be transformed into acceptable gift giving. In the absence of laws regulating gift exchange between officials, or where laws are barely enforced (as is the case in China), bribery in the form of hongbao becomes practically impossible for officials to resist. The space in which it is given also plays an important role in the transformation from bribe to gift. In business, the most common location for hongbao-giving is within the officials’ homes (Lee 2009: 85-106[5]). Since homes are the officials’ private space rather than workspace, hongbao given in a domestic setting can be simply validated as an interaction between friends.

In Chinese society, the practice of ‘gift-return’ has long been regarded as an intrinsic feature of gift giving. Therefore, the ‘gift-return’ between the officials and businessmen produces an artificial form of gift giving. In a further pursuit of the ‘self-justification’ strategy employed by officials keen to avoid gaining a morally disadvantageous status for having accepted hongbao, the official may symbolically reciprocate with a gift of little value, such as a self made painting or drawing (Yue 2012: 102-105[6]).

Because of the moral ambivalence of hongbao, using legal criteria to determine whether hongbao is a gift or bribe is difficult. Therefore, other criteria should be applied. Gu examined the boundary between hongbao as a gift and a bribe in China; he asserts that the distinguishing criteria is determined on the basis of the exchange involved in hongbao, rather than the character of the social relations between the actors involved. If the exchange involves material interest and short-term reciprocity only, then the hongbao is classified as a bribe (Gu 2001: 5-9[7]). Such argument is further elaborated by Lin’s study of the interaction between businessmen from Hong Kong and politicians from Mainland China, in which he points out that giving hongbao as a gift to someone one is connected to within a network should not be instantly reciprocated, as this would be considered impolite or even offensive; rather the gift is expected to be repaid in the future (Lin 2006: 80-87[8]). At a future time, a genuine hongbao recipient will always return a hongbao containing exactly the same amount of money as they were originally given. In contrast, when hongbao is given as a bribe, the hongbao taker will not reciprocate with money, rather, they will repay the gift in another form, such as in a lucrative contract or in the gift of valuable resources or land offered at below market prices.

The implications of hongbao are twofold. Hongbao may be economically beneficial in the short term and as such can be positively connoted. In China where elaborate bureaucracies make it hard to get access to limited resources, hongbao, can be seen as a useful mechanism for ‘greasing the wheel’, or cutting through red tape and serves as ‘speedy money’ (Yang 2001:87-102[9]).

In China, although most people condemn bribery in its broadest sense, and acknowledge that it is illegal, it is so closely related to perfectly legal and ethical behaviours that this very ambivalence makes it very easy for a cynical bribe-giver to argue that he is not guilty of wrongdoing – he is simply presenting a gift to a friend. In the long term however, the moral ambivalence of hongbao hinders the progress of anti-corruption processes in China.


  1. Huang, Y. 2003. ‘The Phenomenon of Hongbao and Institutional Analysis’, (in Chinese) Journal of the Graduate Sun Yat-Sen University, 3:1-24
  2. National Library Board Singapore 2005 ‘Hongbao giving’ http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/infopedia/articles/SIP_846_2005-01-04.html
  3. Bian, Y. 2011. Relational Sociology: Theory and Studies. (in Chinese) China: Social Science Academic Press
  4. Huang, G. 1989. Face: Power Game of Chinese People. (in Chinese) China: Renmin University of China People Press
  5. Lee, H. 2009. ‘Self Justification of Bribery in Moral Terms and Entrapped Corruption: An Archive Study on the Municipal Supervisory Office in City H’, (in Chinese) Chinese Journal of Sociology, 29(6): 85-106
  6. Yue, L. 2012. ‘Analysis of Self Justification in Bribery Behaviors’, (in Chinese) Social Scientist, 187: 102-105
  7. Gu, W. 2001. ‘The Ethical Relation and the Mutually Beneficial Principle in Chinese Village Communities--An Investigation into the Present-making Practice of Zhangze Villagers in the Sonjiang District of Shanghai’, (in Chinese) Journal of East China Normal University, 6: 5-9 Guangzhou.Chn.info ‘Red Envelope’ http://www.guangzhou.chn.info/culture-tradition/cantonese-cultures/red-envelope.html
  8. Lin, S. 2006. ‘Gifts, Relations and Trust’, (in Chinese) Journal of Ethno-National Studies, 4: 80-87
  9. Yang, Z. 2001. A Sense-making System of Interpersonal Interaction of the Chinese. (in Chinese) Taiwan: Yuan-Liou Press